Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Peter Hess is “Clearing the Middle Path”

Robert Luhn, the Director of Communications for the National Center for Science Education sent me a link to an American Scientific Affiliation profile of Peter Hess. Hess is the staff theologian for the NCSE. The profile is written by Emily Ruppel. She writes:
Two years ago, ASA member Peter Hess participated in a colloquium on Intelligent Design at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. He argued that science can neither discover nor rule out the existence of God. A few days later, in the online discussion sparked by this event, a blogger labeled him the Anti-Christ.
Gotta love that Christian tolerance on full display.If he is the Anti-Christ, then there are a whole bunch of us running around. Onward.
“The problem with Biblical literalists is that they are ignorant of exegetical history,” says Peter, “and are generally unaware that an insistence on a woodenly literal understanding of scripture is a relatively recent invention imposed on the Church’s traditional four-fold interpretation. They’re as ignorant of theology as they are of the sciences they presume to critique…

“On the other hand, the issue with some scientists who are atheists is that they fail to see that they are actually making a theological claim by declaring that there is nothing to believe in. Scientists who feel they are qualified to comment authoritatively on religious faith because they have apprehended some of the truths of the natural world are putting on a very ill-fitting philosophical hat.”
The four-fold sense of scripture interpretation (if I understand it correctly) is that scripture should variously be interpreted in a literal sense, where actual events have been recorded, an allegorical sense, where seemingly actual events are not meant in a literal sense but in an allegorical one, a moral sense in that all scripture is good and useful for teaching a Godly way of approaching life, and an anagogical one, in which a truth or event signifies something greater or points us to Heaven. This is yet another area of my theological education that is severely wanting.

It is also hard not to read the second part of that quote and think of The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and how badly it fared at the review table. Hess, indeed, wonders why Dawkins has been so ignorant of contemporary issues in Christianity. He is so for the same reason that Ken Ham is so abysmally ignorant of basic evolutionary biology and the fossil record. It is much easier to maintain a hostile position to the other side if you perceive them as promulgating lies and misinformation. That honest, thought-provoking scriptural interpretation or education about the natural history of the earth get lost in the process is simply collateral damage.

The entire article is very good and profiles someone who is honestly struggling to find a common ground where all can discuss the issues. This is, or should be, our fervent prayer.

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  1. I ordered _Literal Interpretation of Genesis_ by St. Augustine, written some 1400 years before Darwin showed up on the scene. It's interesting that the very first thing Augustine says in that book is that all Christians understand the Hebrew Scriptures figuratively. We must because 1 Cor. 10:11 says that they are written as a "symbol" for us. He then says, the question we must then determine is whether we should also take them literally as historical events.

    I'm paraphrasing from memory, but accurately. It's the very first thing he says in the book.

    We've lost a lot in our quest for literalism. A read through the 2nd century Christian writings, especially books like Justin' _Dialogue with Trypho_, shows how shallow our modern interpretations have become.

    By the way, though Augustine's _Literal Interpretation of Genesis_ has to be purchased in book form, almost all the writings of the 2nd and 3rd centuries are available for free at There Christians can get a taste of how our forefathers used to approach Genesis and the rest of the Scriptures.

  2. Thanks for the link. I, too, have begun to read the original church fathers. The problem is that, the more I read, the less patience I have with modern evangelical Christianity.

  3. I've run into the same problem. May God give you grace in sorting out how to walk with the godly while not encouraging the more dangerous traditions of the evangelicals. Sorting that out isn't easy!

  4. How Dawkins fared at the review table is entirely a matter of whose reviews you are reading (it is an award winning book with praise from Nobel Laureate James Watson, among many others).

    However I can't help but notice that your review link goes to the site of Intelligent Design promoter William Dembski, quoting Anthony Flew. Given the scandal that Flew ended his career with a stuttering nod to the nonscience of ID, and admitted to giving up the 1st person authorship of his last book to Texas creationist lawyer Roy Varghese, one can't help but wonder if Flew (whatever his own worth as a reviewer) even wrote the review.

    I was a Christian for 45 years, entrenched in evangelical doctrine. I found no "straw men" in The God Delusion; I rather found clear and frank depictions of exactly the delusion with which I had grown up.

  5. Beau,

    Do you want more?

  6. Don't need more, since my point was that the book had bad reviews, good reviews, and mixed reviews - (I noticed that some of those you posted were mixed).

    Here's the other side of the fence:

    Do you want more?

  7. Beau, you are quite correct that there were both negative and positive reviews of the book. The point I was trying to make was that there was more than one negative review of the book. Having said that, I probably should have just linked to Allen Orr's review which was the best one anyway.

  8. Jim

    I do understand. But yours is not the first blog where I've heard this comparison of Richard Dawkins and Ken Hamm, and I take issue with it.

    Dawkins' credentials as a biologist far surpass Hamm's credentials in biology OR theology. Christians may not like Dawkins' opinions about the evidence for God, but with the religious influence on such world debates as those over science education and global warming, one can hardly fault Dawkins for responding in strong terms to what he sees as the root of the problem. And his arguments are not as easy to dismiss as Hamm's.

  9. Beau,
    Believe me when I tell you that I have absolutely no respect for anything Ken Ham says or writes. The man has practically single-handedly set Christianity back 500 years. As an evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins is phenomenal and his arguments are extraordinarily compelling. Where I think that Dawkins gets it wrong is equating the modern fundamentalist evangelical reading of the Bible with conventional, traditional biblical understanding. Mark Noll got it right when he called it “the intellectual catastrophe of fundamentalism.” Christianity has a rich, intellectual history. It is a pity that Dr. Dawkins does not see that.

  10. Jim

    I do believe you (regarding your opinion of Hamm). But Dawkins is not under the illusion that all Christians are creationists. He spends time in the first chapter the "The Greatest Show on Earth", talking about religious figures he has worked with to support the teaching of evolution:

    "The Archbishop of Canterbury has no problem with evolution, nor does the Pope (give or take the odd wobble over the precise palaeontological juncture when the human soul was injected), nor do educated priests and professors of theology."

    Dawkins is, however, rightly concerned about the fact that "more than 40 per cent of Americans deny that humans evolved from other animals, and think that we -- and by implication all of life -- were created by God within the last 10,000 years." He documents this figure with Pew and Gallop polls in the appendix.

    When it comes to Dawkins' field, I'm not sure that we can point to a "conventional, traditional biblical understanding" of natural selection, since the theory is barely a century old. But Dawkins does add later:

    "To return to the enlightened bishops and theologians, it would be nice if they'd put a bit more effort into combating the anti-scientific nonsense that they deplore."

    Perhaps you should send him your link?

  11. "To return to the enlightened bishops and theologians, it would be nice if they'd put a bit more effort into combating the anti-scientific nonsense that they deplore."

    We are trying. Believe me, we are trying. It is a long, uphill battle and this is why I have joined up with BioLogos and other groups to fight it. Based on the recent kerfuffle about the historical Adam, which even made the reach of NPR, there are quite a few more people thinking about these things than there were even ten years ago. What effect we will have on the rest of the church is currently unknown. Bruce Waltke was right, though. If the church just ignores the evidence, we are no better than a cult.