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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Two Final Recurring Mistakes in the Adam/Evolution Discussion (4)

The Bible for Normal People

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

Evidence for and against evolution is open to all and can be assessed by anyone.

The sciences are technical and complex, and so require years of training to grasp.

Since evolutionary theory is the product of scientific investigation, it follows that those best suited to evaluate the scientific data and arguments are those at the very least trained in the relevant sciences—or better those who are practicing scientists and therefore are keeping up with developments.

A loose analogy can be drawn with biblical studies. To be sure, the Bible is not remotely as technical a field as the sciences. There is a true sense in which most anyone has access to the Bible and can understand it, which is definitely not true of the sciences.

Still, the academic study of the Bible—which is a necessary requirement in the Adam discussion—requires certain skills that take years of training to acquire.

Simply gaining some facility with Hebrew and Greek takes years, not to mention a grasp of the diverse cultural, literary, and historical contexts of Scripture. Many debates about biblical interpretation (Adam being just one of them) involve us right away in some involved and complex areas that very serious scholars invest a lot of time (whole careers) and energy trying to understand.

Again, I am not saying that the Bible is closed to all but experts. I am saying that there are areas of biblical study that require a level of expertise.

Biblical scholars can normally tell whether or not someone has dealt with biblical languages and the cultural backgrounds to the Bible. And, I will say candidly, we can sometimes get frustrated with those who “don’t know what they don’t know.”

As much as biblical studies requires some training and expertise, it is much more the case in the sciences. The years of training and experience required of those who work in fields that touch on evolution rules out of bounds the views of those who lack such training.

This is certainly the case with those who have no scientific training whatsoever beyond basic high school and college courses. I fall into that category. I remember being handed the periodical table of the elements in seventh grade and told to memorize it. I told the teacher if he thought this was so important he should memorize it himself and leave me out of it.

My science career ended before it began. It didn’t help that I had to take calculus twice before getting a C or that I conducted puppet shows with the lab animals in sophomore year biology.

My point is that serious scientific questions require serious scientific training—which only a fraction of the earth’s population can claim to have.

My point is that most of us do not have a place at the table where the assessment of evidence is the topic of discussion. The list of non-participants includes the following:

  • biblical scholars,
  • pastors,
  • the self-taught,
  • science hobbyists,
  • church historians,
  • theologians,
  • philosophers,
  • politicians,
  • celebrities,
  • seminary administrators,
  • musicians,
  • neighbors,
  • mathematicians,
  • physicist,
  • engineers,
  • best friends,
  • parents,
  • grandparents,
  • that cool website.

You get the idea.

Some have earned the right to take a seat near the table but not at it. High school or college biology teachers, for example, even if they are not practicing research scientists, are people I am going to have to listen to, especially if they are keeping up with the literature. But they are not going to be able to speak with as much conviction as those who are on top of their fields.

I also include here philosophers, historians, and sociologists of science (“science” modifies all three). These scholars look at the philosophical, historical, and sociological conditions within which scientific work takes place. They give us the big picture of what is happening behind the scenes intellectually and culturally.

Science is not a “neutral” endeavor, and these fields are invaluable of putting science into a broader intellectual context. I am all for it.

But here is the problem I have seen. Practitioners of these disciplines overstep their boundaries when they pass judgment on evolution on the basis of the big-picture context these disciplines provide.

I am going to guess that those who make such claims are likely not trained well enough to understand the boundaries of their disciplines, but that is another topic.

Even though it is very helpful to understand what may (or may not) be happening behind the scenes of scientific research, evolution cannot be judged from 30,000 feet. You still have to deal with the scientific data in detail.

I think I stand on very solid ground when I say that the three disciples I mentioned and technical scientific practitioners need to be in conversation with each other, not one standing in judgment over the other.

Anyway, short story: you have to know what you are talking about if you want to debunk evolution. The problem is that, most trained, practicing, scientists have concluded that evolution is true.

If you want to argue with them, you have to argue better science that stands the test of peer review, not better ideology.

Believing in evolution means giving up your evangelical identity.

Many arguments I have heard against evolution come down to this: my evangelical ecclesiastical group has never accepted it, and so, to remain in this group, I must reject it too.

It is never stated quite this bluntly, but that is the bottom line.

But everything depends here on what you mean by evangelical. In recent decades, the term has become a moving target. Just Google “evangelical identity” or “evangelical controversy” and you will see what I mean.

What is up in the air is whether evangelicalism is a stable, unchanging movement, or whether built into evangelicalism is an openness to change.

More importantly, it all depends on whether holding on to evangelical identity should be our primary concern,

or,

whether as God’s creatures we should pursue truth wherever it leads—even if it disrupts familiar paradigms.

We all need to make that choice.

 

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