Old Testament

Do historical matters matter to faith? This is an intriguing question. Though the answer may seem obvious to many it is not so to others. To many evangelical Christians, Scripture, among many things, is an historical book that gives us a window into a time gone by in world history. There are events, places and people it gives an account of that only it gives us an account of. To those would answer no to the beginning question these historical discrepancies leave them questioning the historical accuracy of the text and sometimes abandoning it all together. To those who would answer yes, they either have to say Scripture is plain wrong or, as a historically reliable witness to these things, it is the only record we have of them and can be trusted as much as any other historical text as a single witness to the past. What are Bible believing Christians to make of this?

For decades, this discussion has been raging but it seems to have picked up more steam more recently with the work, among others, of Kenton Sparks and his book God’s Word in Human Words. In short, Sparks calls into question the inerrancy of Scripture in regards to its historical reliability. To Sparks, Scripture is no less authoritative in its theological assertions and worldview even if the historical references it makes are tied to those theological assertions. To many evangelical Christians who hold to the traditional understanding of Scriptures authority and inerrancy this is problematic.

In an effort to respond to Sparks work, and that of others, James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary have edited a new book titled Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture. This is an academic work that addresses the issues the authors see in the works of Kenton Sparks, Peter Enns, Donald McKim and others in regards to their view of inerrancy and subsequently their interwoven view of the historicity of Scripture.

To the contributors of this book their basic assessment is this:

Spark’s proposal and similar proposals have been frequently weighed and found wanting in the history of the Christian churches. Not only does his viewpoint depart from a traditional Christian understanding of Scripture’s truthfulness, but it likewise does not accord with Scripture’s self-attestation about its truthfulness or trustworthiness. (p. 17)

This is no small accusation but their desire to respond to and interact with Sparks and others shows the seriousness of the issue at hand when questioning the Bible’s accuracy when it comes to historical matters.

The book is broken into four major sections: Part One deals with biblical, systematic and historical considerations, Part Two deals with the Old Testament and historicity, Part Three deals with the New Testament and historicity and Part Four deals with the Old Testament and archeology.

Part One lays the foundation for ones understanding of the relationship between history and Scriptures account of it within the narrative. In the first chapter Thomas Mccall deals with the issue of knowledge as it relates to history. How can we know what happened in the past, how sure can we be that we are right in our knowledge of it and how does this effect or reliance of Scriptures attestation of the past? To be sure, these are important questions. Also related to the discussion is the place of critical biblical scholarship (CBS). CBS has traditionally seen itself and its method as authoritative and binding on all historians and historiography. Following C. Stephen Evans, McCall essentially concludes that while CBS provides some helpful guidelines for accurate historical method, they are just that – helpful guidelines that are not authoritatively binding on the method (p. 45-46).

In the second chapter Graham Cole addresses the issue we are faced if we have a “historyless systematic theology.” “Sensitivity to the historical dimension of Scripture is not an option. It is inescapable if justice is to be done to the Bible’s own content” (p. 57). If Christians are to rightly regard Scripture as an interpretation of history than surely, its accuracy on historical events matters to faith and its subsequent theology. Cole later argues that the actual happenings of history matter for systematic theology for three reasons: it is of valuable source for ancient cultural expressions such as weights and measurements, it is of value as a witness to God’s deeds in the past such as the Exodus and it is of greatest value is God’s breathed out Word as stated in 2 Tim. 3:14-17 (p. 66).

Perhaps the most accessible and helpful chapters in the Part One, and the book, are Mark Thompson’s chapter on the theological account of biblical inerrancy and James Hoffmeier’s chapter on the historicity of the Exodus as essential for theology. These two chapters alone are worth the book. Thompson gives five theological pillars of the doctrine of inerrancy which I have spelled out in an earlier post. As I have also discussed more fully in an earlier post, Hoffmeier uses the Exodus as a test case to show why it is necessary for theology and Christianity that the historical events recorded in Scripture actually took place.

Parts two and three address a number of historical accounts in Scripture in both testaments in order to show both why their historicity is a necessary part of the theological foundation for the text and that in fact the events, people and places recorded in the text can be assuredly trusted to have actually existed in the past. Many of these chapters take up the issues presented in various forms of critical reflections of the Biblical text such as form and literary criticism.

Part four deals with archeology and the Old Testament. The authors here show the relationship with and the role that archeology has in supporting the historicity of the Bible. John Monson’s chapter on the conquest of Canaan is a breath of fresh air as he removes the dirt and fog that CBS has tried to put on our Biblical reading glasses. Monson rightly contends, as do a number of the other contributors, that it is wrong to conclude that the absence of archeological evidence is evidence against something. There is more to providing reliable support for an event than archeological evidence. “Cumulative evidence that yields strong possibilities in favor of the biblical text is far more convincing than nonevidence (p. 456).

Do Historical Matter Matter to Faith? is evidence that the traditional view of the authority, reliability and inerrancy of Scripture is not without merit, evidence or a strong scholarly case. This is a scholarly and academic work that proves its case well. I recommend this book to every biblical student, pastor and teacher. The only drawback to the book is its lack of accessibility to the lay audience. Chapters like eight which deals with Word Distribution as an Indicator of Authorial Intention: A Study of Genesis 1:1-2:3 will be lost by even many Bible students and pastors unless they have a very good grasp of Hebrew and textual analysis.

Do historical matters matter to faith? The answer to this question is a water shed issue with very divergent conclusions. The contributors of the book believe they do for a number of reasons not the least of which is the trustworthiness of Scripture and God Himself who has spoken through it to us. The character of God, our relationship to Him and our theology depend, in part, on the historical accuracy and reliability of Scripture.

NOTE: I received this book for free from Crossway and was under no obligation to provide a favorable review. The words and opinions expressed in this review are my own.

Since the publications of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species the reliability of the  Bible has been under vicious attack namely in the area of origins. Questions began to develop under the assumption that Darwin’s theory of evolution was correct. Is there really a God? How can we trust the Bible if it’s account of the origin of everything is false? Since we know, according to Darwinian evolutionary theory, everything evolved from nothing and man was not the first thing that evolved, then how can we trust the Bibles account of mankind’s origins?

This last question strikes at the heart of C. John Collins new book Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care. The historicity of Adam and Eve as the first humans that God created and thus the first parents of every person who ever lived to date and beyond is the issue Collins addresses.

The fundamental issue Collins seeks to address in this regards is how literal did Moses (and God for that matter) intend for future readers to interpret his words concerning the origin of mankind? As simple as it may seem at first, the use of the word ‘literal’ is often misunderstood. When used in context of interpreting the early chapters of Genesis, it can become down right confusing. Confusing, because with every interpretation one reads of the early chapters of Genesis, you will find that everyone believes their interpretation is the literal one. Everyone believes they interpret it as literally as it was intended to be.

What Has the Church Always Believed?

Traditionally, the literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 that dominated the church for the first 1800 years was that the words were to be taken at face value. That is, God literally exists, He spoke everything into existence in the period of seven days not years (or millions for that matter), God formed Adam from the dust of the earth and Eve from rib of Adam, they were the first people created and are the original parents of everyone who ever lived and will live, Eden was a real garden like the one in your backyard, a talking snake (Satan) tempted Eve into sinning and when Adam ate the real fruit (an apple of course) mankind died spiritually, and as part of the curse God made snakes to craw on the ground. Of course there are more details but you get the idea. Until Darwin came along, this was the traditional, orthodox and conservative view of Genesis 1-3 and origins.

But all that has changed now. Collins, who has a doctorate in Hebrew linguistics, believes the church should still interpret Genesis 1-3 literally (there’s that word again) – or at least some form of literal interpretation. Collins writes,

My goal in this study is to show why we should retain a version of the traditional view…..I intend to argue that the traditional position on Adam and Eve, or some variation of it, does the best job of accounting not only for the Biblical materials but also for our everyday experience as human beings (p. 13).

You will notice that Collins proposes a ‘version’ of the traditional view but not necessarily the traditional view as I described above. In the spirit of C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity, Collins affectionately names his version “mere historical Adam-and-Eve-ism (p. 13).” Collins believes that the traditional view has been misused causing some to dismiss it out of hand (p. 15). Readers should know that Collins is only addressing the historicity of Adam & Eve in Genesis and nothing else.

So what is Collin’s version of the traditional view?

So What is History Anyways?

In chapter two, The Shape of the Biblical Story, Collins delves into the discussion of Hebrew literary techniques and how understanding them can help us better interpret Scripture, namely Genesis 1-3. Of particular interest is Collins discussion on what the term ‘history” means. While at the front the use of the word history seems pretty straight forward. To many history is the accounting of how things happened in the past whether it be a history book giving a detailed account of a battle fought in WWI or a husband telling his wife about his day at work or a weekend long work trip. Both are history because they happened in the past but both may not be told in the same fashion. Collins sees history,

Less as a literary genre, and more as a way of referring to events. That is, if we say that something is (or is not) historical, we are not so much describing the kind of literature it is, as we are the way it talks about (or does not talk about) real events (p. 35).

What Collins is trying to point out is that in the telling of history, not everyone is going to tell it the same way. You can be literalistic, metaphorical or both. The issue is determining which of the three methods did the author use and if they used both which parts are literalistic and which are metaphorical. Collins proposes that because the author of Genesis 1-3 could be (and he believes he does) using both literal and metaphorical language that we must extract from it the “historical core (p. 35).” Part of what drives this is how Collins interprets and makes use of Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) comparative material. He concludes,

If, as seems likely to me, the Mesopotamian origin and flood stories provide the context against which Genesis 1-11 are to be set, they also provide us with clues on how to read this kind of literature (p. 35).

Without going into a long discussion, ANE texts of comparative Biblical accounts are strikingly different than the Biblical accounts though they have similar features. Here is where Collins would say they have a common “historical core.” That is, though they have differences, they are still trying to write an historical account of some sort of the same event(s). Collins is not saying that Genesis is not trying to give us an account of origins. However, he is trying to be honest and fair with how the author (Moses) is recording those events and what literary devices he might be using. He wants us to interpret it as literally as it was intended to be.

What Says the Rest of Scripture?

So if Genesis 1-3 is not to be interpreted literalistically (not taking into account any literary devices when interpreting it) then how do the other authors of Scripture interpret it? When they refer to Adam and Eve and creation how literally do they interpret the recording of these events? In this section of the book I expected to see more continuity from the other authors of Scripture but Collins does not really summarize how the other OT authors viewed Genesis 1-3. On the other hand, he gives much more certainty on how the NT writers thought of Adam and Eve. Essentially, Collins believes the NT writers and Jesus thought of Adam and Even as real historical people who really sinned and whose sin affected the rest of mankind. Of Paul’s argument in Romans Collins observes, “The more clearly we perceive Paul’s narratival argument of Romans the more we will see the reality of Adam as the ancestor of all people being tied up with his argument (p. 88).”

Though the NT writers and Jesus believed in the historicity of Adam and Eve, Collins doesn’t believe they interpreted the recording of their existence in Genesis 1-3 literalistically as some do. For Collins it is enough that they existed as the fountainhead of mankind, really sinned and that their sin had lasting consequences on all of mankind.

Where Does Science Fit In?

As mentioned earlier, since the dawn of Darwin, parts of the church have read Genesis’ account of origins differently due to scientific discoveries and claims. Collins addresses this area through the use concordism. Concordism is the attempt to harmonize what the Bible says about origins with the claims of scientific theories (p. 105). Essentially, Collins argues that Genesis is not trying to answer the same kinds of detailed and scientific questions modern man is. Again, Collins presses for an historical core that needs to be held onto.

Since there are many theories (and certainly more to come) concerning the origins of mankind how are we to evaluate them in light of the nonnegotiable’s we hold from Scripture when it comes to mankind’s origins? Collins suggests four criteria in order to help us stay within the bounds of sound thinking:

  1. We should see that the origin of the origin of the human race goes beyond a merely natural process. This follows from how hard is it to get a human being, or, more theologically, hoe distinctive is the image of God.
  2. We should see Adam & Eve as the headwaters of the human race.
  3. The “fall”, in whatever form it took, was both historical (it happened) and moral (it involved disobeying God), and occurred at the beginning of the human race.
  4. If someone should decide that there were, in fact, more human beings that just Adam & Eve at the beginning of mankind, then, in order to maintain good sense, he should envisions these humans as a single tribe (p. 121).

Where Do We Go From Here?

To be honest I had a hard time separating Collins views from those of others he discusses and critiques. I had to read and re-read several portions of the book and I am still not totally sure I understand where Collins is exactly on some issues. I think there was too much was covered that was not adequately explained which might be the reason for some of my confusion. Collins did make it clear in the beginning of the book that he would not explain everything and wrote with the assumption of some prior knowledge. As such this book is not the place to start for a beginner. For sure Collins does end by saying, “Adam & Eve at the headwaters of the human family, and their fall, are not only what Jesus believed but also an irremovable part of that whole story (p. 135).”

I would also encourage readers who want to grasp a better idea of what Collins thinks to read his other book Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary.

Overall, Did Adam & Eve Really Exist? is not for the beginner to the origins debate concerning Adam & Eve. There are many good insights Collins has but not as many conclusions as I anticipated. This is a short (almost too short) introduction to the current issues surrounding the historicity of Adam & Eve.

If you would like to read an interview by John Starke with Collins about his book you can go to The Gospel Coalition web site here.

For centuries Christians from various theological and denominational traditions have debated about the role of the Old Testament Law in the life of the believer today. While there are many secondary sources of contention, the root of the division among well meaning Christians is the significance of the 10 Commandments.

There are basically two sides to the issue: those who believe that Christ, as the fulfillment of the Law, has done away with the Law and that we are now under the Law of Christ, and those who believe that the Law is broken into a threefold structure (civil, ceremonial and moral) and that while Christ has fulfilled the civil and ceremonial laws, He has upheld the moral laws (10 Commandments) such that they are still binding and applicable for us today.

As the title indicates, Ross defends the later view in his new book From the Finger of God: The Biblical and Theological Basis for the Threefold Division of the Law. Another way of looking at the threefold division is to see “one part of the Law as non-binding, another binding it its underlying principles, and another ever-bindng (p. 2).”

At the front Ross is clear that he is taking the lead for his discussion on the threefold division of the Law from The Westminster Confession of Faith. In fact, throughout the book Ross continually looks to history, namely the Reformed tradition, to marshall support for his defense of the threefold division of the Law.

There are a number of things that stand out in Ross’ work that summarize his defense of the threefold division of the Law.

First, Ross is quick to point out that this position is undeniably a catholic doctrine. That is, this is a doctrine that cuts across denominational and theological lines and unites men from many places. “Throughout history, the churches most prominent theologians expounded maintained, and defended its teaching (p. 1).” While Ross does devote time to fairly let the voice of his opponents speak (p. 12-17), the bulk of chapter one is given to a sweeping history of ardent defenders of the threefold division of the Law (p. 19-32). Ross shows how this position on the Law can be said to be the ‘orthodox position’ (p. 33) and defends the history of supporters for the position by stating:

Those who first adopted the division as a hermeneutical framework and those who enshrined it in confessions, along with church officers and scholars who sought to uphold it, did so because they believed it was biblical teaching (p. 35).

Second, and perhaps most convincing, is that Ross argues for an antecedent to the Decalogue as early as Genesis 1-2. It is this point that really makes a compelling case for the threefold division of the Law and thus that the Decalogue stands apart from the rest of the laws given in the OT. If the Ten Commandments preceded the formal giving of the Law at Sinai then this shows two possible subsequent realities: (1) that the possibly Decalogue existed as early as Genesis and therefore (2) that Christ was not abrogating its use and contemporary relevance for post resurrection believers. The question is then asked, “What would Moses think?”

So what is the antecedent source of the Decalogue?

It lies in its distinctive nature. Ross argues for a distinctive nature to the Decalogue such that is is separate from the rest of the Law when it comes to place and  fulfillment. Ross walks through all Ten Commandments to show their antecedents before Sinai (p. 61-74). Ross points out that Adam & Eve transgressed again several of the Ten Commandments when they sinned and he also shows how the Decalogue would look in the pre-Fall world (p. 79). This pre-Fall existence of the Decalogue draws a contrast between it and the other laws.

It is very likely that the Decalogue was known by people prior to its formal giving at Sinai. Further, “it is impossible to think of the Mosaic Laws outside the Decalogue in the same terms. The law codes of Leviticus and Deuteronomy only make sense in a postlapsarian creation (p. 80).” Ross’ point is that the reality of the Decalogue before Sinai makes sense where as the rest of the laws would not. Ross concludes his argument for the distinctive nature of the Decalogue by pointing to the observation that it has no “distinct historical development (p. 80).” So what would Moses think? Ross believes that “if the Pentateuch represents what Moses thought, then the basic categories of the threefold division would not have left him in severe shock (p. 119).”

Third, much of the book deals with the Biblical material in the NT in which Jesus, Paul and the other NT writers interact with the Law. Ross essentially believes that though there is never a stated threefold division of the Law anywhere in Scripture, all of the NT writers, including Jesus, treated the Law as if it existed and was understood. This understanding is the only way Ross believes one can properly understand how to interpret the NT discussion and treatment of the Law. Jesus and the NT writers treated the civil and ceremonial laws as if they were no longer in effect. In turn, they treated and even upheld the continuation of the Decalogue leaving no doubt that it was not done away with.

Ross concludes his study with these well crafted words:

No single passage of Scripture clearly states the threefold division of the law. It cannot be demonstrated by simplistic appeal to a particular Scripture, only by a progressive reading of the Old and New Testaments as the coherent source of Christian theology. Theologians, churchmen, and believers who read Scripture in that way were justified in receiving the threefold division of the law as the ‘orthodox’ position. They did not yield blind allegiance to an untested ecclesiastical dogma, but gave thoughtful acceptance to the threefold division of the law with its practical-theological implications. They embraced it as catholic doctrine because it is biblically and theologically valid. They were right to do so. And we are not ashamed to follow (p. 353).

Ross interacts throughout the book a lot with recent critics of the threefold position. Namely, Douglas Moo and D.A. Carson and his edited book From Sabbath to the Lord’s Day. A common thread throughout some of the disagreement is that the threefold division is ‘too neat’ (Meyer – 9, M00 – 12, Wenham – 15, Poythress – 16, and Carson – 17). I personally do not find this counter argument very persuasive. Are our contemporary formulations and expressions of the trinity and hypostatic union of Christ too neat to then say that they are unbiblical? Of course not.

Readers will find From the Finger of God to be intellectually stretching. At times it is hard to wade through especially in the longer chapters. Much appeal is made to historical figures who similarly held the threefold position which may unnecessarily weaken the position in the minds of some. More exegesis of certain passages could be beneficial but that was not the single aim of the book thought it was in part. In this vein Ross does provide a helpful appendix of a more detailed exegesis of the verb “to fulfill” in Matt. 5:17-19 (p. 357-70).

This is not a book on the subject for a beginner and may fly over the heads of too many laypeople. Overall, Ross makes a compelling case for the threefold division of the law and I welcome this contribution.