Friday, April 09, 2010

Scripture as adiaphora

Over at First Things: Evangel, Mark Olson did a post. Unable to defend his position, he's apparently retreated from the field of battle under the cover of other commenters. So I'm reposting my own comments here:

steve hays
April 6th, 2010 | 7:52 pm | #1
Thanks for documenting the fact that the Orthodox Church is quite liberal. Some misguided Evangelicals convert to Orthodoxy under the illusion that Orthodoxy is a bastion of conservative theology in the midst of liberal theology. You have, albeit unwittingly, put that misimpression to rest.

April 6th, 2010 | 8:50 pm | #3
Dude, I’m more concerned with a “Christian community” which feels free to relegate Bible history to fictitious “adiaphora” except for a dogmatic residual. And that’s not something the Apostles would have done.

steve hays
April 6th, 2010 | 10:46 pm | #5
Mark Olson:

“First, I think the liberal/conservative distinction is not useful, I agree with sd on that point. For example, if you attempt to labeled EO as a ‘liberal’ theological bastion, you might consider and compare the problems modern liberal protestants are wrestling with right now … and note that Orthodoxy is by comparison not doing so at all.”

Really? Explain the difference between a liberal Democrat and Michael Dukakis, Arianna Huffington, George Stephanopolous, or the late Paul Tsongas.

“Finally, are you proposing that the flood being historical fact is a dogma to stand aside Trinity and the Empty Tomb?”

I take it that this is how you’d apply your Orthodox hermeneutic to, let us say, the Gospel of John:

John 1:14: Dogma
John, chapters 2-19: Adiaphora
John 20:9: Dogma

“When St. Paul talks of the Gospel … that includes the necessity in believing in a literal flood?”

Apparently the Jefferson Bible is the official Bible of the Orthodox Church.

“How about giants? A heroic age? Every person on Earth thought of nothing but evil thoughts?”

I don’t see any evidence on your part that you’ve made the slightest effort to exegete those passages in a scholarly fashion. What exegetical literature have you consulted?

“Whether the story is noetic or fact is adiaphora.”

That’s an assertion in search of an argument.

“There is no relegation to ‘fictitious adiaphora’ going on here.”

Either the flood account is literal or fictitious.

steve hays
April 7th, 2010 | 8:24 am | #10
Mark Olson


The question is whether you only affirm the historicity of just those portions of the Fourth Gospel which your denomination happens to dogmatize. Is that your hermeneutic?

“Let’s see for the flood and the garden I indicated that in that time period there were literary triggers to indicate that a story was to be taken as a literal account or not, like four rivers which do not meet are told to meet.”

Yes, you said “At the beginning of the story there is a mention that this story is at the juncture of four rivers. Real rivers which however in reality are nowhere near each other. They do not “meet” anywhere.”

And why do you think that’s a plausible argument? Rivers can converge at numerous points. For example, tributaries can originate in a common body of water upstream (the headwaters). They can also converge downstream (e.g. at a delta). Or they can intersect somewhere in-between. It’s easy to document real-world examples.

As far as literary triggers are concerned, Gen 2:10-14 situates the story in Mesopotamia. The Tigris and Euphrates are real rivers. And they were known to the target audience. So that’s a real world setting.

“Huh? Aren’t they politicians.”

Of Greek Orthodox extraction.

“I’m unclear on where they stand theologically.”

What about where they stand morally? What about the fact that the Greek Orthodox church doesn’t hold them to basic standards of Christian social morality?

“It’s unclear why a mid to late first century author writing in a different genre would be expected to follow the same pattern.”

You’re assuming that John was written in a different genre than Genesis. What’s your justification for that assumption?

“My point is that a narrative can be true but not have exact correspondence to an accurate video playback.”

But you’ve already indicated that you don’t think the flood account corresponds to a genuine historic event–situated in real time and real space.

“Have you read St. Gregory’s Life of Moses? Didn’t St. Athanasius (or was it St. Antony I don’t recall right now) write about the passage out of Egypt and the struggle through the desert and into Canaan entirely in terms of personal spiritual journey from sin to salvation, crossing the Jordan as Baptism and so on.”

And how is that relevant to the correct interpretation of Exodus?

“Let me ask you this? Which is more important today to you, historical accuracy or the spiritual lessons like that?”

So the Resurrection doesn’t need to be a real event as long as it teaches us spiritual lessons. Is that it?

You’re reducing Christianity to a set of ideas–like Buddhism. In Buddhism, it doesn’t matter what Buddha really said or did.

But Christianity is grounded in events. The spiritual truths are grounded in events. We can derive spiritual truths from the Exodus because it really happened–as a result of which we can analogize from various elements of that event to comparable situations.

“Do you know how Hebrew verbal tradition worked? Why do you assume that ‘literal’ inscription and remembrance of events or ideas was the norm? Why do you transpose 20th century narrative norms and values on cultures which are basically alien to you?”

Have you read John Currid’s commentary on Gen 2:10-14? He has a doctorate in archeology from the Oriental Institute. Have you read David Tsumura’s monograph on The Earth and the Waters in Genesis 1 and 2, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament supplement Series 82? Have you read Kenneth Kitchen’s discussion of Gen 2:10-14 from his work On the Reliability of the Old Testament? Kitchen is Professor Emeritus of Egyptology and Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology at University of Liverpool?

If anyone is transposing 20C narrative norms to an ancient text, that would seem to be you, not me.

“Even first century Israel was a Mediterranean honor/shame society with a completely different notion of economic and social norms. Why do you expect a plain reading of even the Gospels makes sense if you don’t take the worldview of Jesus and his audience into account?”

You mean, like Craig Keener’s 2-volume commentary on the Gospel of John? Yes, I’d said that I’ve taken their worldview into account. Have you?

steve hays
April 7th, 2010 | 9:17 am | #12
Mark Olson

“At the beginning of the story there is a mention that this story is at the juncture of four rivers. Real rivers which however in reality are nowhere near each other. They do not ‘meet’ anywhere.”

Over time, rivers can change courses. Over time, rivers can dry up.

April 7th, 2010 | 6:19 pm | #29
Mark Olson

“It would be good if you tried to make more sense…Let’s see a river east of Assyria, a river going around the country of Ethopia and sharing a common source with the Euphrates. Yet, somehow over time that makes sense, over time Eastern Africa and Western Afghanistan shared common waters. Gotcha.”

You have a habit of making bald assertions without furnishing any supporting data. Once more, what exegetical scholarship have you consulted on the rivers of Eden or the location of the Garden?

You seem to take for granted that you know what the Biblical place names and tributaries refer to. But ancient geographical references can be obscure. What was common knowledge some 3000 years ago may be long-forgotten. And there can be more than one candidate.

I also don’t think that “Gotcha” is an appropriate response to God’s word. That’s more akin to the attitude of the murmuring Israelites whom God condemned to perish in the wilderness.

“Well, for the EO patristic commentary is somewhat important. I did in fact mention that in the above piece.”

How is St. Gregory an expert on the ANE?

“Why do you suggest that only two chapters of John are part of EO liturgy and teaching?”

Your hermeneutic evidently takes the position that you only have to affirm the historicity of those few portions of Scripture which your denomination has chosen to dogmatize.

“But my guess would be that they realise that the call to repentance, turning their life to God, and that as is said in every service that ‘Jesus came to save sinners, of whom I am first’ is something we all can say truthfully.”

What about excommunication?

“It’s unclear to me where you are trying to go with this.”

You said, “For example, if you attempt to labeled EO as a ‘liberal’ theological bastion, you might consider and compare the problems modern liberal protestants are wrestling with right now … and note that Orthodoxy is by comparison not doing so at all.”

Since in you invited a comparison, I’m taking you up on your invitation.

And that’s not the only point of comparison. What about the very liberal view of Scripture taught at St. Vladimir’s?

“It’s unclear to me where you are trying to go with this. Do you want me to start asking why you aren’t in communion with the church that has a patriarchy in Antioch on a street called Straight for 1800+ years?”

You’re more than welcome to ask me that question if you’d like–although you might also want to preface your question by explaining why I should care.

“And no I haven’t read the commentaries you referenced, but judging from your remarks, if you have indeed read them yourselves … you’ve demonstrated quite well that reading does not infer comprehension, seeing that you consider John a book written in Greek in the first or second century to share the same literary patterns as Genesis, a book derived from an oral tradition and written down by authors in the kingdoms period.”

Thanks for once again corroborating my point that Eastern Orthodoxy has become a haven for theological liberals–and thereby confirming the fact that the situation Eastern Orthodox is, indeed, quite comparable to “the problems modern liberal protestants.”

I appreciate your frank admission. That’s just one more reason take Eastern Orthodoxy off the table.

“Can you cite an example of how your literal interpretation the Noah story draws from honor/shame anthropological norms?”

Can you demonstrate how honor/shame conventions are germane to the historicity (or not) of Gen 6-9?

April 7th, 2010 | 9:47 pm | #33
Gary Simmons

“Mark, you made a positively wonderful post, and the comments so far have been nothing but drivel.”

What is drivel is your resort to tendentious assertions.

“There is very serious emphasis placed in the Bible on the historicity of the Incarnation and the death, burial, and resurrection. This is meant to be taken as historical. The cues given in the flood narrative, or the book of Job or Jonah? Not so much.”

What about the Exodus?

“People have no sensitivity to genre…”

I notice that you don’t present an actual argument for that assertion.

“…and they put God in a box, saying “if God ever speaks hyperbolically the way we humans do, then his word is untrue! They must have had only evil thoughts continually. That must be taken at face value, but God is not true if he actually exaggerates in stories the same way ALL HUMANS do.”

To the contrary, Mark is the one who seems unable to make allowance for the hyperbolic phraseology.

“God could endorse a symbolic narrative about a flood, folks.”

God could also send a real flood, Gary.

“He doesn’t have to fit into your literalistic box.”

No, he has to fit into Gary’s mythological box. How convenient!

steve hays
April 8th, 2010 | 7:54 am | #39
“Genesis 2 describes a verdant paradise-like garden in which Adam and Eve lived and worked. There has been a tendency to regard the Eden episode as legend or myth, that is, not as a historical account, and to view Eden as a symbolic place rather than a real location. Archaeology cannot settle this question, but Genesis 2:10-14 surely offers a specific location for the garden by naming the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The English name Tigris is actually the Greek vocalization of the ancient Sumerian name id-dikaltu, which means River Diklatu. The Hebrew preserves the Sumerian as Hiddekel. Euphrates echoes the Akkadian name of the river—purattu. These are real rivers whose names were known in ancient cuneiform texts, and whose names survive to this day. Little is known of the other two rives, the Pishon and the Gihon (Genesis 2:10-13). The former is said to flow through the land of Havilah, a Hebrew term for northern Arabia. The idea that a river once flowed across the deserts of Arabia, and somehow connected with the Tigris and/or Euphrates River, seems far-fetched. But this all changed when evidence for such a river came from satellite radar images taken during the 1994 mission of the Space Shuttle Endeavor. Boston University geologist Farouk el-Baz, who studied the images, noticed that traces of a defunct river that crossed northern Arabia from west to east were visible beneath the sands, thanks to the ground-penetrating capabilities of the radar technologies. He called it the ‘Kuwait River,” for that is where it apparently connected with the Euphrates or emptied into the Persian Gulf. Some scholars have proposed that this is the Pishon River of Genesis 2. Environmental studies in the region suggest that this river probably dried up sometime between 3500 and 2000 BC when an arid period was experienced. This new evidence suggests that the Bible has preserved a very ancient memory that predates the era of Moses. By the mid-second millennium BC, this river had already turned to desert 1,000 years or more earlier,” J. Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Lion Book 2008), 34-35.

“Both [Tigris & Euphrates] take their rise in the mountains of present-day Turkey (eastern Anatolia)…Today they join up in south Iraq to form the Shatt el-Arab to enter the gulf, but this was not always so in antiquity…Best contenders for the name of Gihon would either be the Kerkheh River or (better, perhaps) the Diz plus Karun Rivers,” K. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans 2003), 429.

“The Pishon has long proved a tougher nut to crack, until recently…Torrid north Arabia hardly seemed the setting for a river to rival the other three mentioned. But in very far antiquity, just such a river once existed, and its long-dried course has recently been traced from its rise in the west Arabian goldlands (in Havilah) east and east-northeast toward the head of the gulf, via modern Kuwait. This may well have been the ancient Pishon. If so, the ancient author’s enumeration runs counterclockwise, from southwest (Pishon) across east to the Gihon, then north and northwest to the Tigris and Euphrates, in a continuous sweep,” ibid. 429.

steve hays
April 8th, 2010 | 9:14 am | #42
I don’t think it’s coincidental that Olson is a physicist by training. He views the creation account and the flood account as unhistorical because he views them as unscientific. That’s the real reason.

Then, to feel justified in his position, he launches a preemptive strike on Bible-believing Christians in an effort to put them on the defensive.


  1. I'm surprised none of the commenters made the standard reply that believing in a literal Noah is bad because science "proves" the ark was impossible. So if people believe in an historical narrative, they are going to lose their faith. Therefore the so-called moderate is doing us a favor by rescuing religion from naturalistic scrutiny.

  2. Steve,

    Some folks, even scholars, believe that a person can deny the historicity of an account in the Bible, and still be able to don the mantle of being an inerrantist.

    You're already familiar with the debate about the historicity of Adam (via your post about Jeremy Pierce's thoughts). Now we're seeing the same thing about the historicity of the Flood. Even though the Evangel post wasn't about inerrancy, I can still imagine someone saying that there wasn't a historic Flood, but that they themselves are still inerrantists.

  3. TUAD,

    As you know, I've been over the limitations of that response with Jeremy Pierce.

  4. i visited your site and it was good enough than othere site that i visited before.

    part time job