Friday, December 09, 2011

The Meaning of “Biblical Literalism”

Todd Wood points us to an article by Joshua Moritz on The Search For Adam Revisited: Evolution, Biblical Literalism, and the Question of Human Uniqueness that shows up in the journal Theology and Science. It appears to be open-access and I had no trouble securing a copy. Although the focus is on the idea of how to interpret the creation narratives in a literal, yet textually faithful fashion, Moritz, in quite concise language, points out the glaring origin of modern young-earth creationism and how different it was from the understanding of biblical literalism of the day:
Even more recently, such as at the time of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial (1925), the actual face of biblical literalism was quite different than one might expect—especially if one has in mind young earth creationism with its insistence upon a 10,000 year old recently-created earth and its focus on ‘‘flood geology’’. Around the time of the Scopes trial in the early twentieth century, there is no record of any biblical literalists within normative Christianity who interpreted the Bible as claiming a recent creation in six 24-hour days or that Noah’s flood had anything to do with how one should interpret the record of global stratigraphy. Indeed, literalists at that time saw Noah’s flood as a local phenomenon and ‘‘even the most literalistic Bible believers accepted the antiquity of life on Earth as revealed in the paleontological record.’’ The one exception to this general rule was the Seventh Day Adventists—a sect of Millerites who, after 1844 (and disillusioned by Christ’s failure to return), regrouped under the leadership and supernatural visions of the teenage prophetess Ellen G. White—a charismatic young woman ‘‘whose pronouncements Adventists placed on par with the Bible’’. White and her Seventh Day Adventist followers harbored no doubts about the correct reading of the early chapters of Genesis because in a trancelike vision White was ‘‘carried back to the creation’’ by God himself, ‘‘and was shown that the first week, in which God performed the work of creation in six [24 hour] days and rested on the seventh day, was just like every other week.’’ White likewise saw that during Noah’s flood, God created all the various geological layers of sediment and fossils by burying the organic debris and causing ‘‘a powerful wind to pass over the some instances carrying away the tops of mountains like mighty avalanches...burying the dead bodies with trees, stones, and earth.’’ Thus, from the divine dreams of Ellen White young earth creationism was born and, ironically, it was conceived in stark opposition to the reigning biblical literalism of the day.
Most young earth creationists that I know are, I believe, unaware of this information. How, or if it would change their Christian walk is unclear. It is instructive to read Ron Numbers' The Creationists to see how dominant the Adventists were in the formation of modern-day young earth creationism.

The article is a good expose on how the scriptures would read if we really did read them literally, which is quite differently than our modern understanding of them is. He reiterates the position that is held by Paul Marston and others, that there is absolutely nothing in the passages that indicates that Adam and Eve are the only people around during the account in Genesis.

Although the paper is largely devoid of scientific observations, he ends by reminding those of us that tend to think too highly of the scientific endeavor that it is not the be all and end all that we think that it is:
While the doctrine of creation demands that Christians take science seriously, a large part of taking science seriously is to understand that science, as such, is not (and never has been) in the business of making unalterable pronouncements about the nature of reality. Because there is so much terrain in both science and theology that remains unexplored we must press onward in faith, sobered by a good dose of epistemic humility, and taking care in the meantime to not greatly exaggerate the reports of Adam’s death.
That said, if all the evidence points in one direction, how long do we ignore it?

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  1. With regard to your last comment, Moritz also said, "And we must
    recognize that while the theory of common ancestry and the evolution of all life is as scientifically certain as any given theory can be, the scientific details of specific scenarios for human evolution are most certainly going to change" (emphasis added). So he does not favor ignoring or suppressing the evidence. I must say I'm not sure exactly what he is saying about how to come to a resolution, but he does seem to ask for some theological solution that is true to revelation as well as accepting science.

  2. Challenge yourself. Google First Scandal.

  3. “Bad Day in the Garden”. That's really funny. I look forward to reading it more in depth with interest. Thanks.

  4. Anonymous1:53 AM

    If you are interested in Moritz's work, he did a lecture series in our church that was outstanding. I would encourage you to check it out…

    Here is a link to the vimeo channel.