In his excellent Easter editorial (“Christ Has Risen Indeed!” April 2011), Bob DeMoor asserts, “As believers we certainly have our differences. We can and may question and debate points of doctrine, biblical interpretation, morality, and mission—and still find ourselves firmly within the household of faith. But we may never deny the actually-happened, literally historical reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead. It is the heart of the gospel and of our faith.”
Has the marriage of Christian faith and scientific theories of the day always resulted in enhancing the vitality of the faith?
Although this viewpoint is surely not controversial in the CRC, it is in Protestantism generally, as the editorial recognizes. Many “liberal” mainline Protestant theologians see Jesus as no more than a great teacher or a revolutionary who died a martyr’s death. He “rose again” only in the sense that his Spirit lives on in the lives of his followers.
Other mainline Protestants reject this. They want to retain the heart of the historic Christian faith—that Jesus died for our sins and rose again for our justification—but they have difficulty accepting the historical trustworthiness of the Bible. Following the lead of 20th-century German theologian Karl Barth, they distinguish between historie (literal historical events) and geschichte (the interpretation of an event presented as history). This distinction came to mean that certain events in the Bible, such as the creation of Adam and Eve, the virgin birth, or the resurrection of Christ, may not have actually happened in real history; what matters is the spiritual truth these events are intended to convey.
The obvious appeal of this approach is that we need not be concerned about scientific or archaeological discoveries that appear to conflict with Scripture. What if one day the bones of Jesus are definitely discovered, as was recently claimed? No matter. What does matter is the spiritual truth of his death and resurrection and the message of salvation from sin that these theological truths convey. (Note to Barth fans: I acknowledge the complexity of Barth’s thought and the centrality of the resurrection in his overall theology, but others who are identified with neo-orthodoxy, including Bonhoeffer and Bultmann, are much less ambiguous in their rejection of the “literally historical reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead.”)
Clarence Vos, a respected member of the Committee on Infallibility appointed by Synod 1959, takes the argument of that committee a step further, applying it to the present controversy surrounding the historical creation and fall of Adam and Eve (“How Should We Read the Bible?” November 2011). Vos adapts Abraham Kuyper’s helpful distinction that “the historiograpy of the Bible was not that of a camera but more like that of an artist’s brush.” Taking it far beyond what I would respectfully suggest Kuyper intended, Vos argues that an event may be “historical” without being “literal,” just as “Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Topsy’ was more historical than any living African American girl.”
It is true that a historical event may be described non-literally with poetic imagery, as in the Psalms, but this is entirely different from saying a fictitious figure is “historical” in the way Reformed theology has always understood the term. While it is correct to say that metaphor and parable are powerful means of conveying spiritual truth, these literary forms are usually quite identifiable as such.
Among his supporting arguments, Vos uses a pastor’s “indication of a clear symmetry in the Bible: the first chapters deal with the distant past, and the final chapters deal with the distant future. The pastor felt they should both be recognized as literature of a distinct type . . . to see that history is told in a different, probably more metaphorical way.” Interesting, but the Book of Revelation may not have been the last to be written, and there is nothing especially inspired about where it is placed in our Bibles. Besides, a number of Old Testament scholars who subscribe to biblical inerrancy (a term Vos and the Committee on Infallibility rejected as “not the most felicitous term” to use of Scripture), have had no difficulty recognizing poetic elements in the Genesis creation account without questioning its factual historicity.
The article ends with the expectation that as theology learns from the findings of science “however tentative they may be . . . in the end our Christian faith will be more vital than ever.” Perhaps, but surely this is not intended to mean that we should adjust our understanding of Scripture to the most tentative of scientific findings. Has the marriage of Christian faith and scientific theories of the day always resulted in enhancing the vitality of the faith?
In response to the current findings of the Human Genome Project, “which indicate strongly that the human race, as now constituted, did not descend from one human pair,” Vos clearly finds a rethinking of the historicity of Adam and Eve to be a biblically faithful way of interpreting the early chapters of Genesis.
It may seem a long way from there to denying the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, and I am not suggesting that any current CRC leaders are anywhere close to making that leap. But given the theological significance of the New Testament parallel between the first and second Adam (Christ) on which our entire salvation hangs, is it not an entirely possible, even logical (if distant) development?