Science in Christian Perspective




Reply to Geisler
Richard J. Coleman 
Durham Community Church 
Durham, New Hampshire 03824

From: JASA 32 (March1980): 59-60.

Dialogue is frequently an excellent method of clarifying issues, and so I welcome the opportunity to respond to Dr. Geisler's critique. 

I am surprised by the fact that Geisler agrees with me, and many other evangelicals, that "there are intentions behind the affirmations" of Scripture and that therefore it is legitimate to inquire about those intentions as long as we do so by examining the text itself. I am surprised by our agreement concerning such an important hermeneutical principle because even this limited examination of she author's intention becomes a crucial and pervasive qualification of strict nerraney. As Geisler continues, however, I begin to doubt that he is really committed to paying much attention to the intention of the author by engaging in "good historieo-grammatical exegesis of what the author asserted in the text." My hunch is that Geisler has already made assumptions about what those intentions were and therefore does not submit them to examination or questioning by the written text.

Let me cite two examples to clarify my position. Good grammatical-historical exegesis is predicated upon a process of critically questioning the text by asking such questions as, What is the central purpose of the author? What was the character of his audience? What were she social and theological questions he was addressing? Thus we are led so ask: Can we determine what the author of Genesis affirmed about creation, or what Matthew and Luke meant to say in their narratives about the birth of Jesus, independent of ascertaining what their purpose was? We are, of course, led back to the familiar question whether the authors were making statements of fact about biology, astronomy, or biography. If the strict inerrantist claims that the author of Genesis, for example, was indeed making a statement of chronological fact in regard to the time period of creation (7 days), then he must support his position not only by reading the text literally but by presenting supportive evidence from she broader context (chapter, book, written strand or redaction extending through several books). The issue is further complicated because she author may have had more than one purpose. His primary purpose may have been so answer "why" type questions (Why were the world and man created? Does the story of redemption include the beginnings of time?), but he used "how" type statements to buttress his primary faith affirmations. But then we must ask just how literally he expected (or insisted) his readers to understand his statement about seven days and whether the interpreter today can legitimately accept the faith affirmations of Genesis but within a new scientific context.

A similar process of exegetical inquiry arises in regard to the birth stories. After studying the texts in parallel, the interpreter is driven either to conclude that she authors are in disagreement concerning some basic historical details or they are not writing as collaborating eyewitnesses. Without assuming anything about the intention of Matthew and Luke the interpreter must face the issue of apparent or real disagreements (Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, pp. 36ff.) and seek to find she most satisfactory solution that abides by the written material. Whether we like is or not, she interpreter, regardless of his beliefs about inerraney, must inquire about the intention of she authors in order not to distort what he meant to say. One might conclude, as does Raymond Brown, that Matthew and Luke's primary concerns were theological-Matthew to show that Jesus was the heir to the promises made to David and Abraham, and Luke to make a transition from the story of Israel to she story of the Messiah. The alternative approach is to argue that their primary purpose was to write an historical biography and therefore the disagreements must be harmonized or some other explanation given whereby we assume the authors intended to write this or that but really wrote what she text records. Regardless of the approach, or even a mixture of the two outlined here, the interpreter engages the text and author in determining the intention behind the affirmation, because the affirmation cannot really be understood without appreciating the motivation behind the written or spoken words.

We must remember that even a literal interpretation makes assumptions about the intention of the author. There are many of us who have the most difficulty in defending strict inerrancy because it proports to have a hermeneutical method that does not have to resort to questions about the author's intentions. This however is not the case, because inerrancy presupposes the author's intention was best served by a literal reading of his written words, or in some cases a poetic interpretation, and in other instances by harmonizing two or more passages. For all its many faults, James Barr's book, Fundamentalism, does highlight the typical inconsistency to which inerrancy is frequently forced to resort.

Dr. Geisler is right in raising the issues of "what is truth." because exegesis always assumes something about the biblical concept of truth. My point about absolute vs. adequate truth is that only God can know absolutely. Consequently, man's conceptualization and expression are always limited and circumscribed by various factors--the culture and his intention being just two fundamental factors. 1 do think a great deal of difficulty has been effected because of efforts to foist upon the biblical writers a twentieth century correspondence view of truth. I find it ironic thatjust as the scientific community is giving up such an understanding of reality for a relational one, evangelicals cling tenaciously to a position of inerrancy which presupposes a nineteenth century concept of correspondence (a world statically there and objectively known).

Whether the biblical writer wrote from a relational or a correspondence view of reality, his intention must be considered because it is one of the given limitations inherent in human language. Any author must necessarily center-in upon one purpose at the expense of other possible ones. It is crucial that we at interpreters know, insofar as it is possible, whether Matthew and Luke were intending to write a historical biography where there must be a one to one correspondence between the facts of Jesus' birth and his Messiahship, or whether they adapted their sources because of their prior relationship with the living Christ. The two are not mutually exclusive, but one point of view dominated as they wrote their accounts of Jesus' birth. Therefore we are indeed compelled to ask without assumption what prompted the writer and allowed the text to dictate what their overriding purpose was.