Letter to the Editor


Swallowing Absolutism

James E. Nelson 
United Presbyterian Church 
609 Genesee Blue Rapids, KS 66411-1312

From: PSCF 43 (June 1991): 142.

Whether the subject is science or religion, I find myself cringing when I hear a positivist or absolutist exposition on a particular theme. (Or should I say dogma?) And indeed I did find myself cringing when I read Roy A. Clouser's "Genesis on the Origin of the Human Race" (<MI>PSCF<D>, March 1991). In this particular case one could recognize two dogmas going head to head. At stake was whether the book of Genesis was on the side of the Biblicist or the Scientist.

At stake in this particular article is how precisely we can understand the mind of the author. I agree with Clouser that "Scripture must be understood as having an essentially <MI>religious<D> character" (p. 4, original emphasis). Where I differ is to what extent we can use this as an absolute interpretive guide. For instance, based on the above understanding, Clouser makes the following claim:

Viewed as prologue to the covenant(s), the main purpose of the first part of the creation account is plainly to identify the covenant-maker. It distinguishes the God of Israel from the gods of Paganism by proclaiming Him to be the creator of everything other than Himself. It does not intend to tell us what we would have seen could we have been there to observe the universe in its early stages (p. 5).

Such a statement assumes that the writer of Genesis 1 shared an essentially similar world-view to our own. Can we be certain that the writer did not intend to set forth a cosmology? Can we be certain that the writer did not have certain "encyclopedic intentions" as he formulated this drama? I suspect that Clouser's assumptions are correct, but his absolutist approach to the problem sounds far too much like his literalistic, creationist counterparts.

At the heart of the issue is the failure to distinguish between the issues addressed in the text and the issues which we desire the text to address. (This latter desire is certainly not bad, but it comes under the purview of application, not interpretation.) This failure to distinguish between the original and intepretive horizons can be clearly seen on p. 10: 

Because of the essentially religious focus of the text, and the essentially religious nature of humans, I find the biblical account to be giving us an account of the intial appearance of religious consciousness in creatures.

As if the author of Genesis was concerned about some modern definition of "the initial appearance of religious consciousness"! It's not absolutely impossible, I suppose, but I find it a bit much to swallow that the "facts" are that apparent. Recent events in the Middle East have demonstrated once again the tremendous hermeneutical gap which exists between different cultures. (Was the Gulf War in response to the rise of a "second Hitler," or yet another "Christian Crusade"?) When one adds a distance of several thousand years, one must approach these questions with great humility indeed.

Clouser's argument certainly is worthy of some consideration, but in his effort to answer the creationists it would appear that he has fallen into the same epistemological and hermeneutical traps.