Run, John, run, the law commands
But gives us neither feet nor hands,
Far better news the gospel brings:
It bids us fly and gives us wings.
—(probably) John Berridge, 18th century
I first heard this poem during my first semester in seminary. Since then, I’ve heard it repeated in sermons, books, and blogs. It’s usually seen as a pithy description of the proper relationship between Law and Gospel. Now in some respects, I like it. For one, it reveals the lofty demands of the Gospel—notice how it says that the Gospel bids us to “fly” rather than merely “run.” This goes counter to some theologians who claim that the Gospel is all about believing and not obeying. But biblically speaking, the Gospel does demand obedience—see 2 Thes. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:17 (in other words, the Law/Gospel distinction is not the same as a faith/works distinction).
What I don’t like about this poem, however, is how it seems to turn the Law into an inferior revelation of God. This is evident in two respects: 1) it demands less of us (running, not flying), and 2) it does not empower us to carry out its demands (gives us neither feet nor hands).
Regarding point 1, this is a simplistic understanding of Law, and not in keeping with biblical usage of the term. The Law most certainly does demand much of us. According to Jesus, the two greatest commandments of the Law are to love God with our whole being (Deut. 6:5) and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18; see Matt. 22:36-40). Can the bar really get any higher than that?
Regarding point 2, there is a sense in which this is true, but it’s not the whole story. The apostle Paul says: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:3-4)
So there is something that the Law cannot do: it can’t justify us. In our unbelieving, unregenerate state, we cannot earn a right standing before God through the Law. But for those of us who do believe, the Law is most certainly a life-giving guide and a goal to which we can aspire by the empowering grace of God’s Spirit. In this sense, it can help sanctify us. The psalmist prays to the Lord, “I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have given me life” (Ps. 119:93; cf. 19:7; 119:156). If we are in Christ, the law is life.
That’s what I don’t like about the Law/Gospel distinction. It’s valid for our justification, but not our sanctification. I fear that many Christians turn the preaching of Law and Gospel into a “good cop/bad cop” routine—the Law tears us down, so the Gospel can build us up. The Law brings judgment and condemnation, while the Gospel brings comfort and protection. But this way of understanding it focuses too much on the negative use of the Law. At its worst, it fosters a dismissive and antinomian attitude toward the Law—“I can’t keep the Law, but Jesus kept it for me, so I don’t have to.” To be sure, we need to remember that the Spirit’s work in us is not yet complete. The law still exposes sin, and we can never outgrow our need for the cross. Nevertheless, believers should strive to see in the Law the positive end for which it was originally intended—the promotion of holiness. We need to appreciate the continuing value of the Law as our heavenly Father’s instruction to us, intended to lead us into the fullness of life and blessing.
 OT scholar Gordon Wenham distinguishes between law as “floor” and ethics as “ceiling.” Law/floor is concerned with the minimum enforceable requirements that allow a society to function (e.g., do not murder), whereas ethics/ceiling is concerned with the ideal attitudes and values toward which we should aspire (e.g., do not harbor resentment). I think it is more appropriate to speak of law as both floor and ceiling, depending on the context. See Wenham, Story as Torah (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 79-107.
 NT scholar Thomas Schreiner, who rejects John Calvin’s third use of the law (as a guide for believers), stumbles on this text, even though he acknowledges that its direct application here is only for believers. He thinks that the Law brings life only in an indirect sense, as it convicts believers and causes us to rely on the grace of God. But for the psalmist, the law is grace (119:29—lit. “grace me your law”). See Schreiner, 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law (Kregel, 2010), 85-87.
(Note: I originally presented the following paper in January 2013 for the second annual meeting of the Theological Fellowship at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.)
One of the ongoing debates within the evangelical world centers on the question of infant baptism—that is, should we baptize professing believers only, or should we baptize both believers and their children? As both sides of the debate agree, there is no explicit command in Scripture for one practice or the other, so it is generally believed that the matter must be settled indirectly, by determining the role that baptism plays within broader theological frameworks. This morning I’m going to survey various attempts to situate baptism within the context of the New Covenant.
The New Covenant is a recurring theme in Scripture. In the OT, it’s mentioned explicitly only once, in Jeremiah 31. According to this passage, which is found in the context of Judah’s promised return from Babylonian exile, the Lord makes a “new covenant” with the houses of Israel and Judah. This covenant is unlike the old covenant that their forefathers had broken; it leads to the internalization of God’s law and to the full forgiveness of sin. We could also connect Jeremiah 31 with the restoration prophecies in Deuteronomy 30 and Ezekiel 36. While these prophecies do not explicitly refer to a New Covenant, they do share the underlying idea that the Lord himself will deal directly with the problem that had necessitated Israel’s punishment by exile in the first place. Since the problem was Israel’s heart, God would intervene to change their heart. In the NT, the phrase “new covenant” is found in several places, including Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 11, 2 Corinthians 3, and Hebrews 8, 9, 12. These passages variously tie the New Covenant to the Lord’s Supper, to a ministry of the Spirit rather than the letter, to Christ’s mediation and sacrificial death, and to better, eternal promises.
Now there is no passage of Scripture that explicitly ties the New Covenant either to the practice of baptism or to the children of believers. Connecting these three concepts must therefore be done inductively, based on inferences from the biblical text. In this paper, I will present and evaluate three different views on the relationship between the New Covenant, baptism, and believers’ children. These three views are not exhaustive of Christian views on baptism; rather, they represent three different perspectives from within the Calvinistic tradition. In the order that I am presenting them, they are the Progressive Covenantal view, the Augustinian view, and the Traditional Reformed view. The first view opposes infant baptism, while the second two support it. I will personally land between the Augustinian view and the Traditional Reformed view.
The Progressive Covenantal View
I begin with the Progressive Covenantal view. This position, which is gaining popularity among Reformed Baptists, is described primarily in two works—first, in Believers’ Baptism, edited by Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2007), and most recently in Kingdom through Covenant, by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). This second work seeks to take a middle ground between traditional Covenant Theology and dispensationalism; hence the name “Progressive Covenantalism.”
The essence of Progressive Covenantalism is that the New Covenant signifies a visible community consisting of spiritually regenerate believers only. Or in Wellum’s words, “All those within the ‘new covenant community’ are, by definition, people who presently have experienced regeneration of heart and the full forgiveness of sin.” So unlike OT Israel, God’s people are no longer understood as a mixed entity of believers and unbelievers, but now every covenant member has a saving knowledge of the Lord. Progressive Covenantalists likewise understand the New Testament church as a heavenly and spiritual entity whose members are “in Christ,” but no spiritually unregenerate person can ever be united to Christ. Therefore, since baptism signifies union with Christ and New Covenant membership, Progressive Covenantalists argue that it should only be applied to those who show evidence of spiritual regeneration—that is, professing believers. You will notice then a significant implication of Progressive Covenantalism: it collapses the traditional distinction between the visible and invisible church—that is, the distinction between the visible community of God’s people and those within the community who are eternally elect.
Now in my opinion, Progressive Covenantalism has three significant problems. First, we cannot baptize individuals on the basis of their status as eternally elect—a status which is unknowable to us. Rather, we could at best only baptize them on the basis of their profession of faith, which may or may not be genuine. This fact alone makes the visible/invisible church distinction inescapable. Second, Jeremiah 32:39 declares that the New Covenant is for the good of both Israel and their children after them. The problem, as Jeremiah saw it, was not the presence of children in the covenant, but rather apostates. And third, Progressive Covenantalism cannot adequately account for the existence of covenant breakers within the church, such as we find in the NT warning and apostasy passages. Holding to the Calvinist doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints, Progressive Covenantalists teach that it is impossible for those who are spiritually regenerate to lose their salvation. So if the New Covenant community is restricted to only those who are spiritually regenerate, then the New Covenant is by definition unbreakable. And yet Hebrews 6:4-5 says that there are individuals in the church who “have been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,” but who nevertheless fall away. Further, according to Hebrews 10:29, such an apostate has “profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified.” How do Progressive Covenantalists deal with such passages? They say that these verses only present a hypothetical scenario by which the author intends to spur his readers toward perseverance in their faith. In other words, the threat is merely fictitious. But this sounds like special pleading to me. A natural reading of these warning passages strongly suggests that covenant members can and do fall away. I am convinced that another approach is needed.
The Augustinian View
This brings us to the second view, which may be called Augustinianism, after its most famous defender in church history, Saint Augustine of Hippo. In more recent years, it has been supported by J. Oliver Buswell, Robert Rayburn and our own Dr. Jack Collins. One of the most extensive treatments of this view is found in Joshua Moon’s recent publication, Jeremiah’s New Covenant (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010).
To understand the Augustinian view, one must understand the difference between the objective administration of the covenant and the subjective appropriation of it. “Objective” refers to the various external structures, ceremonies, and sacraments that regulate the community of God’s people. “Subjective” refers to those individuals within the community who have embraced the covenant from the heart, clinging to its promises by faith—again, think visible and invisible church. Further, the objective side of the covenant may change progressively over time, as we see with the adding of circumcision, then the priesthood, then the monarchy, and so forth. But the subjective side remains the same throughout history; OT saints were saved in the same way that we are today. The Augustinian view teaches that the New Covenant refers to this subjective aspect of the covenant, not the objective aspect. This means that the New Covenant is not a redemptive-historical development of the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants. Instead, one could say that Abraham, Moses, and David were themselves members of the New Covenant. And conversely, “old covenant” does not refer to a bygone era in redemptive history, but rather to individuals whose standing in the covenant is merely external. So similar to the Progressive Covenantal view, the Augustinian view also restricts the New Covenant to those who are spiritually regenerate. But the difference is that the Augustinian view still maintains a visible/invisible church distinction. The old and new covenants—faithless fakers and true believers—exist side-by-side within the covenant community throughout all ages, until the Eschaton.
Now with respect to baptism, Augustinians understand it to be an objective ordinance of the visible church. It may signify the spiritual realities of the New Covenant in a sacramental sense, but it does not automatically guarantee one’s status as a regenerate participant of the New Covenant. Therefore, Augustinians have no problem applying the rite of baptism to believers’ children.
Now in my opinion, the Augustinian view has a lot to commend itself, especially with respect to the OT data. First, it accounts for the close literary connection between Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecy and Israel’s restoration from Babylonian exile. Second, it can take at face value the subjective aspects of Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecy. And third, the Augustinian view can make sense of the fact that we see New Covenant realities expressed in the lives of certain pre-exilic saints. For example, in Jeremiah 31:33, the Lord prophesies, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” But in Psalm 40:8, King David can also pray to the Lord, “Your law is within my heart.” Similarly, Deuteronomy 30:6 says of the returning Jewish exiles, “The LORD your God will circumcise your heart… so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” But 2 Kings 23:25 says that King Josiah, who reigned before the exile, “turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul.” So it seems hard to deny that subjective aspects of the New Covenant existed well before the Christian era. But the chief weakness of the Augustinian view, as I see it, is its difficulty in handling the NT data [see treatment below].
The Traditional Reformed View
This brings us to the third and final view, which I call the Traditional Reformed view. This position has been described in a number of works, including Richard Pratt’s essay, “Infant Baptism in the New Covenant,” and Far as the Curse Is Found by our own Dr. Mike Williams (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005). According to the Traditional Reformed view, the New Covenant brings with it sweeping changes to the administration of the covenant. In fact, nearly all that distinguishes the NT church from OT Israel may be subsumed under the heading of the New Covenant. The arrival of the Messiah—New Covenant. The outpouring of the Spirit—New Covenant. The institution of baptism and the Lord’s Supper—New Covenant. However, for all the changes that the New Covenant brings, certain things remain the same. Just as the children of Israelites were included in the old covenant, so also the children of believers are included in the New Covenant. The New Covenant does not further restrict covenant membership, but rather expands it, so as now to include even the Gentiles. And since baptism is understood to signify membership in the New Covenant, it may also be applied to infant covenant members.
The NT evidence in support of the Traditional Reformed view seems to be pretty substantial. When Christ institutes the Lord’s Supper in Luke 22, he calls it the New Covenant in his blood. Now an Augustinian would interpret this statement sacramentally, in the sense that the Lord’s Supper is a physical sign of the spiritual reality of regeneration. Now I agree that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, but is that all that Christ means in calling it the New Covenant? After all, in the OT, circumcision and the Passover were likewise sacraments, but would we say that they too constituted the New Covenant? In addition, Christ is called the mediator of the New Covenant in Hebrews 8, 9. But he did not assume his mediatorial role until after he had accomplished his work of atonement. Pre-incarnate Christ was not a covenant mediator. So either we have to say that the New Covenant existed unmediated prior to the Incarnation, or we acknowledge that in some sense the New Covenant was inaugurated by the mediation of Christ. The latter sounds more plausible to me.
In conclusion, it might be helpful to frame this whole discussion in the context of the two Latin theological terms, ordo salutis and historia salutis. Ordo salutis, meaning “order of salvation,” refers to that “golden chain,” the personal experience of salvation that leads an individual from regeneration, to faith, to justification, to sanctification, to glorification. By contrast, historia salutis, meaning “history of salvation,” refers to God’s dealings with humanity in general throughout the course of world events. The three views we’ve examined this morning all relate the New Covenant to these two concepts in different ways. The Traditional Reformed view sees the New Covenant as a matter of historia salutis; the Augustinian view sees it as a matter of ordo salutis; and the Progressive Covenantalists want to have their cake and eat it too.
Now as I said previously, I personally think the truth lies somewhere between the Traditional Reformed view and the Augustinian view. It seems to me that Scripture does not use the term “New Covenant” univocally, with the same meaning in every passage. In some places, such as Jeremiah 31, the emphasis appears to be on the subjective side. But in other places, such as Hebrews 8, 9, the emphasis appears to be on the objective side. I do not think that these emphases are mutually exclusive; rather, they are complementary. The physical signs of the New Covenant administration are meant to point to the spiritual realities of a New Covenant relationship. Now you might ask me if I’m not trying to have my cake and eat it too. My response is yes, but not in the same way as Progressive Covenantalism. I do think that the New Covenant can be understood as both objective-visible-historia on the one hand, and as subjective-invisible-ordo on the other. But I also think that a distinction between these two categories needs to be maintained, at least until the church militant becomes the church triumphant. So I’m trying to integrate the strengths of each position. This in turn will have very practical implications, not least of which is addressing the question, should believers baptize their children? And in my personal opinion, the answer to that question is yes. If believers’ children are covenant members, and if baptism is for covenant members, then baptism is for believers’ children.
Appendix: Anticipated Objections from the OT to the Augustinian View
While I believe that the OT evidence generally favors an Augustinian reading, there are two potential objections from the OT that need to be addressed. First, I mentioned how Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecy corresponds to the restoration prophecy in Ezekiel 36. In that passage, God promises to put his Spirit within his people, so that they will obey his commands. A similar idea is echoed in the prophecy of Joel 2, where God promises to pour out his Spirit on all flesh, so that men and women will prophesy and have visions. The apostle Peter quotes this very passage in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, inaugurating a new era in redemptive history. This would then tie the New Covenant to the Christian era. So this objection reasons from Jeremiah 31 to Ezekiel 36 to Joel 2 to Acts 2. The weakest link in this chain is the connection between Ezekiel 36 and Joel 2; they might refer to two different workings of the Spirit, the former being regeneration for the purpose of obedience, and the latter being outpouring for the purpose of supernatural gifts. This would then exclude Joel 2 from the category of New Covenant prophecy. This appears to be supported by Ezekiel 37, the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. In v.14, the Lord says, “I will put my Spirit within you… and I will place you in your own land.” For Ezekiel, the Spirit’s activity is directly connected with the return from exile, not Pentecost.
The second possible objection is based on Jeremiah 31:34, where the Lord declares, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” One might see in this statement a reference to the cross, where the true forgiveness of sin was actually accomplished. After all, the book of Hebrews tells us that the blood of goats and bulls could never take away sins (10:4), and Romans tells us that God had passed over former sins until he put forth his own Son as a propitiatory sacrifice (3:25). In this regard, OT sacrifices were merely “IOU’s” or “promissory notes” that had no inherent power to forgive. So if Jeremiah 31 is talking about forgiveness actually accomplished, one may argue that it is a messianic prophecy. However, I think it may help to distinguish between the subjective and objective conditions for forgiveness. On the subjective side, forgiveness requires repentance. On the objective side, forgiveness requires an atoning sacrifice. It seems to me that Jeremiah’s prophecy is concerned with the subjective side. I don’t see in Jeremiah any hint that something was fundamentally wrong with the OT sacrificial system per se. Although in retrospect we as Christians can say that the cross achieved our forgiveness, it is doubtful that that’s what Jeremiah had in mind.
 Kingdom through Covenant, 64f.
 Ibid., 72f, 691.
 Wellum says that this is “merely a human epistemological problem,” but that we should still do our best to baptize only when we see evidence of regeneration (Kingdom through Covenant, 693). But this turns baptism into nothing more than a mark of our best guess, which nullifies any real efficacy to it and any material connection to the covenant (a point which Wellum would probably not deny). In fact, by spiritualizing the church, it undermines any material reality to the covenant whatsoever, even calling into question our ability to call a particular community of professing believers a church. This has the unintended effect of creating a dualistic split, elevating the spiritual at the expense of the physical. Does this really fit the NT picture of the church?
 Believer’s Baptism, 3-5.
 In The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003).
 C. John Collins, “The New Covenant and Redemptive History” (unpublished essay, 2012), 16.
 At the same time, proponents of the Traditional Reformed view must still account for the subjective language used in Jeremiah 31 and the parallel restoration prophecies in Deuteronomy and Ezekiel. Taken together, these prophecies form a picture of a people with transformed hearts and an unmediated knowledge of God and of his law. Surely, such language goes well beyond the realities we experience even today in the Christian church. After all, we are still a mixed company of regenerate and unregenerate. And even the most sanctified ones among us still need to hear instruction in God’s Word. So how does the Traditional Reformed view deal with this interpretive difficulty? Richard Pratt appeals to the concept of inaugurated eschatology—the tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” Many of the New Covenant promises have already come to fulfillment, but many others still await Christ’s return. It will not be until the Eschaton that we finally see the complete merger of the visible church and the invisible church. Pratt, 168. See also Williams, 215-216.
 So Williams, 216-217.
 Williams acknowledges that the problem as Jeremiah saw it was not the Mosaic Covenant per se, but rather Israel’s failure to keep it. Ibid., 210.
 For both objections, a connection to the Christian era may still be established typologically, with the return from exile setting a pattern that finds a heightened fulfillment at Calvary and Pentecost. Such a reading would respect the integrity of the prophecies in their original OT context.
(This is a follow-up to a previous post of mine: How Should Christians Apply Old Testament Laws?)
I suspect that for the majority of people who come across this blog, whether Christian or non-Christian, this is an obvious question. Most would consider it beyond dispute that stoning adulterers—and more generally, treating private sins as capital crimes—is barbaric and inhumane. In fact, they would argue, that point should be so self-evident to any rational person that even raising the question is deeply offensive. After all, we’re not the Taliban. But the instinctive hostility that most people feel toward this practice faces one major problem: it’s biblical. Leviticus 20:10 reads, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” So how can we call this practice barbaric and inhumane, without also saying the same thing of the God who commanded it?
Christians have had different ways of dealing with this difficulty. At one end of the spectrum are dispensationalists,¹ who argue that Old Testament law applied only to ancient Israel. They say that trying to appropriate Israel’s laws for ourselves is a lot like “reading other people’s mail.” Therefore, what may have been appropriate for Israel might nevertheless be unconscionable for us today. But this view is problematic for a number of reasons. First, we Christians believe in a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So we should expect the OT to reflect his unchanging moral character just as much as the NT. Second, Jesus himself says that not one “jot or tittle” of the law would pass away until heaven and earth pass away (Matt. 5:17-19). And third, it proves too much. There are many other Old Testament laws given to ancient Israel that do clearly apply to us today, like the commands to love God (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37-40) and to love our neighbor (Lev. 19:18; Rom. 13:8-10). The NT goes even further in saying that all Scripture (here meaning the OT) is meant for our instruction and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17; cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-6). So the question we need to ask is not whether Old Testament civil laws apply to us (they do), but how.
At the other end of the spectrum are theonomists (theos = God, and nomos = law),² who advocate a direct application of nearly all OT laws (penalties included) to modern civil society. Now theonomists generally acknowledge some degree of cultural conditionality in these laws, but for the most part their operating principle is, “Every OT law directly applies to us today, unless the NT explicitly repeals or modifies it.”³ And although most theonomists believe that this process should happen gradually only as a culture becomes increasingly Christianized, their end goal is to see all the nations of the world governed by the law of Moses.
Now in my opinion, there is a lot that theonomists get right. First, they rightly affirm the continuity of the OT and the NT. Second, they rightly affirm the lordship of Christ over all the nations of the earth. And third (and this is tied to the second), they rightly reject a split between the sacred and secular realms. So in general, I am much more sympathetic to theonomy than dispensationalism.
With that said, I want to explain why I am not a theonomist.4 Since a comprehensive critique would get pretty lengthy for a single blog post, I’ll limit myself to two basic points. Negatively, I will attempt to make a brief case for why, in general, we should not directly apply OT penal laws to civil society today. Positively, I will offer some suggestions for how we should determine particular laws and penalties today.
Now I should point out here that the OT never explicitly states that Israel’s civil laws should be directly applied to Gentile nations.5 Then again, it never explicitly states that they shouldn’t be either. Therefore, any argument one way or the other will depend on one’s prior hermeneutical framework and inferences from the biblical texts (much like the issue of infant vs. believer baptism). Further, considering the particular perspective6 from which one approaches the evidence will go a long way in determining who really bears the burden of proof. Theonomists tend to emphasize a normative perspective, focusing on the universal character of God’s laws. But in my opinion, they neglect the situational perspective, which takes into consideration Israel’s unique cultural and historical position, as well as their unique covenantal status before God.
Taking into account Israel’s unique covenantal status is especially important when considering the nature of OT penalties. The Mosaic law is frequently couched in the language of covenantal privilege and responsibility. Consider, for example, Leviticus 11:45: “For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” With great privilege comes great responsibility, and with great responsibility comes greater punishment for transgression. That is why God says to Israel in Amos 3:2, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” The sanctity of Israel was paramount in her mission—more so than for any other nation, then or now. No other nation is covenantally bound to God like Israel was.7
This, I believe, is precisely why penalties were so severe for those crimes that demonstrated covenant infidelity, such as adultery (Ex. 20:14; Lev. 20:10), idolatry (Deut. 13), and rebellion against parents (Deut. 21:18-21; according to Wright, the family was the primary unit in which the covenant relationship was preserved and experienced).8 On the other hand, the death penalty for murder had a different basis; it was rooted not in the Mosaic covenant, but rather in the more universal Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:5-6). And the reason here for the death penalty had nothing to do with Noah’s unique covenantal standing (a privilege enjoyed only later by Abraham and his offspring), but rather with the fact that humans are made in God’s image. For these reasons, I believe that a case can be made for the continuing validity of capital punishment for murder and related crimes, but not for covenant infidelity.
I also believe that theonomists fail to account for the typological character of OT penal laws (this is one of the main points of Poythress’s book The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses). These laws served as symbols and shadows pointing to a reality that was fulfilled in the finished work of Christ. Like the tabernacle, sacrifices, and ceremonial purity laws, we can say that the OT penal laws were intended to point us to the greater destruction of sin in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The fullest expression of God’s justice is therefore found not in the OT laws themselves, but rather in the person and work of Christ. The OT laws certainly reveal God’s justice, but only in a subsidiary sense, as they point us to Christ. This Christological orientation of OT penalties means that we should not necessarily expect a direct, one-to-one correspondence with our situation today.
So if we can’t base our penalties today directly on the Mosaic law, then how should we determine the appropriate penalties? And how far should our legislation go? Should it also encompass so-called “private” and “moral” offenses? Here I can only give some preliminary considerations. For one, I am rather skeptical of the libertarian principle: “Persons should be free to harm themselves and consenting associates … as long as they do not harm others or infringe on their rights.”9 Theonomist Greg Bahnsen rightly points out that this principle is ambiguous, arbitrary, inconsistently applied, and (above all) not biblically derived.10 I would also add to Bahnsen’s objections the fact that adultery, for example, most certainly does cause harm to, and infringe on the marital rights of, the betrayed spouse. As a consequence, I would at a minimum reject the notion of “no fault” divorce laws.
Beyond that, different kinds of offenses need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. As I mentioned above, we should expect the severity of penalties to be different outside a covenantal context such as Israel’s.11 So instead we need to take into account the kind and degree of harm caused by the offense. And we need to ask questions like, what will be the effects of imposing such-and-such penalties on such-and-such offenses? Conversely, what would be the consequences of not imposing such penalties? And what kind of values should our laws seek to foster within a society?
I’ll conclude by highlighting some of the insights that we should draw from theonomists. For one, they rightly point out the fact that our current judicial and penal system is seriously broken. The U.S. currently has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, at about 743 adults per 100,000. This is combined with a very high rate of recidivism (re-arrest/imprisonment after release). By contrast, there is no OT precedent for incarceration as a form of penalty. Instead, penalties took the form of corporal punishment (Deut. 25:1-3), exile (19:1-10), and restitution (Ex. 22:1). It is worth considering whether such penalties would be a viable alternative to our current system. We should also ask what it might look like to have an entire community directly involved in the execution of a criminal, as was the case with Israel. At the end of the day, we may find that some of our emotional reactions about these issues derive more from cultural prejudices than from biblical authority.
Postscript: if you’re a Christian, I’d discourage you from appealing to John 8 (the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery) in discussions on theonomy. In all likelihood, this is a spurious text; it’s not found in the earliest manuscripts of John, and it differs in style and vocabulary from the rest of John’s gospel.
1 Dispensationalism stresses the discontinuity of the Old and New Testaments, by relegating the former to an obsolete “dispensation” of God’s dealings with humanity. Leading representatives have included John Nelson Darby, Cyrus Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer.
2 Theonomy is also variously referred to as Christian Reconstructionism and Dominion Theology. Leading representatives have included R.J Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, and Gary DeMar, among others. While certain theonomists have also called for rather particular civil reforms—such as a return to the gold standard or a radical commitment to laissez-faire capitalism—these points are more peripheral. I would consider any position to be broadly theonomistic which advocates the (more or less) direct application of OT penalties to modern society.
3 The Westminster Confession of Faith distinguishes three categories of law: moral, civil, and ceremonial (XIX). It further states that while the moral law continues unchanged today, the civil and ceremonial laws have been abrogated by the coming of Christ. Theonomists instead argue that only the ceremonial laws have been abrogated, while both the moral and civil laws continue. This description is helpful though somewhat simplistic, since the OT itself does not categorize its laws in so neat a fashion.
4 I am indebted to a number of sources for my critique. See Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995), Appendix B (available free here online); Christopher Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 403-408.; Gary Scott Smith, editor, God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1989).
5 Theonomists might point to proof-texts such as Deut. 4:6-8; Isa. 2:3; Mic. 4:2. However, with respect do Deut. 4, Poythress points out how the perspective one adopts informs what one notices in this passage (Poythress, Appendix B, Part 2). When the Gentile nations look in envy at Israel and her laws, do they desire to adopt Israel’s laws wholesale for themselves (normative perspective), or rather to enjoy the same unique covenantal standing with Israel’s God (situational perspective)? And with respect to Isa. 2 and Mic. 4, we cannot automatically assume that these prophetic texts speak of the Mosaic law extending to the Gentiles in every respect and without modification.
6 Here I am indebted to John Frame’s theory of multi-perspectivalism. A brief primer to this theory can be found online here. For a more in-depth treatment, see Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1987).
7 Historians and Bible scholars have described Israel’s unique covenantal status as a “theocracy” or “church-state nexus” (Josephus, Against Apion 2.17; C. John Collins, “A Study Guide for the Old Testament Prophetical Books,” [Covenant Theological Seminary, 2008], 96). In a sense, theonomists believe that the entire world is on its way to becoming a theocracy. Eschatologically speaking, this is true. But that does not mean that nations today (even Christian-majority ones) can become specially, covenantally bound to God before the arrival of the New Jerusalem.
8 Wright, 407.
9 Ronald Sider, “An Evangelical Vision for Public Policy,” Transformation 2.3 (Jul-Sep 1985), 6.
10 God and Politics, 43.
11 Technically, no one exists outside a covenantal context. Our very humanity binds us to God in a covenantal relationship. That is why I have consistently attempted to speak of Israel’s “special” or “unique” covenantal status throughout this post.
“There was a time when religion ruled the world. It is known as the Dark Ages.”
–Ruth Hurmence Green
Ruth Hurmence Green was a popular atheist writer from the 20th century. Born in 1915 into a Missouri Methodist family, she lost her only sister to breast cancer, and was herself later diagnosed with skin and throat cancer. Though the cancer was treated and kept at bay, these experiences led her to reject the nominal faith of her youth, and she eventually began promoting the cause of “freedom from religion.” When her throat cancer came back a second time, she decided to end her life by taking a fatal dose of painkillers in 1981.
Green is perhaps best known for the above-mentioned quote, which is frequently used online by secularists who seek to ridicule the beliefs of Christians (and especially those Christians who attempt to bring their beliefs into the political sphere). Admittedly, such a statement carries significant rhetorical force. The “Dark Ages” call to mind a time of widespread ignorance, superstition, and disease. And so the reasoning goes that all of these social ills must be the consequence of giving political power to the church. Since we don’t want to turn back the clock to such dreadful times, we’d better not repeat the mistake of handing over the reins of the state to the clergy! Such reasoning inevitably leads to the privatization and relativization of all religious belief.
But is Mrs. Green’s quip justified? I, for one, see a number of problems with it:
- “Religion” is far too broad a category to be meaningful. It encompasses everything from Christianity to Islam to Hinduism to tribal animism. That being the case, nearly every civilization in history until the eighteenth century has been ruled by “religion” in some sense. The Dark Ages are hardly exemplary.
- There have in fact been times when civilization thrived under the rule of religion. Take, for example, the Abbasid Caliphate in the medieval Islamic world (encompassing the Middle East and North Africa). They made tremendous advances in the fields of science and medicine.
- Correlation does not imply causation. Simply because the medieval Catholic church had political power (although, to be more precise, the apex of its political power was in the relatively more prosperous period of the High Middle Ages c. 1000-1300 than the Dark Ages c. 500-1000), that does not make it the reason for the decline of civilization at that time. A more significant cause was the political vacuum left by the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 and the subsequent barbarian invasions, and the church can hardly be blamed for that. In fact, the stability provided by the church may have been one of the main reasons why the Dark Ages did not become worse!
- The Middle Ages are often caricatured as a time of ignorance and superstition, but that is not really the case. Contrary to popular belief, most medieval thinkers rejected a flat earth and the use of magic.¹ Further, the church at this time encouraged critical thinking and empirical discovery; just consider the legacy of Occam’s Razor for scientific inquiry today.
- Green’s quote could just as easily be rephrased against secularists. Consider the following: “There was a time when secularism ruled the world. It is known as the Soviet gulags, the Chinese cultural revolution, and the Cambodian killing fields.” Now a secularist might complain that all of these examples come from communist regimes, and most secularists today would not identify as communist. Fair enough, but why don’t they grant Christians the same courtesy? Why lump all religions in one bag? Even if the medieval Catholic church was to blame for the ills of the Middle Ages (and I’m not saying that it was), is it fair to let one bad apple spoil the whole bunch?
I raise these considerations in order to counter the warnings of secularists that introducing religion (and particularly Christianity) into the political realm will lead to the downfall of our civilization. I simply don’t think that history supports such a claim. And I am becoming more and more skeptical of the value of a strict separation of faith and state (note: I didn’t say church and state!).
1 See Jake Akins, “C.S. Lewis, Science, and the Medieval Mind,” in The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, edited by John G. West (Seattle, WA: Discovery Institute Press, 2012), 59-68.
What’s the problem?
Old Testament laws are tricky for Christians. On the one hand, some OT commandments sound fairly sensible to us—love God with all your heart (Deuteronomy 6:5), love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), don’t murder (Exodus 20:13), and so forth. On the other hand, many OT commandments sound pretty weird—what’s so bad about boiling a goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19), or about trimming your sideburns (Leviticus 19:27)? And other OT laws sound downright cruel—is it fair for a slaveholder to get away with murdering his slave, just because the slave happens to survive a couple days (Exodus 21:20-21)? Or isn’t it sexist for a woman to become ritually unclean for twice as long when she gives birth to a girl as when she gives birth to a boy (Leviticus 12:2-5)? As appalling as many of these laws may sound to us, we need to confess the truth, beauty and goodness of all of God’s Word. Therefore, we need a way of interpreting OT laws that doesn’t simply reduce to cherry-picking what sounds convenient to us. But how do we do this?
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the New Testament also seems to give a mixed picture of OT laws. On the one hand, Jesus said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and that not one “jot or tittle” of the law would pass away until heaven and earth pass away (Matthew 5:17-19). On the other hand, there are several OT laws that seem to have been done away with in the NT, such as the kosher food laws (Mark 7:19), sacrifices (Hebrews 7:26-27), and circumcision (Acts 15). And then there’s the apostle Paul, who says both that Christ is the “end of the law” for believers (Romans 10:4) and also that Christians must fulfill the commandments of the law (Romans 13:8-10). If it is true that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16), then there has to be a way of reconciling all of these seemingly conflicting statements.
The law’s place in the story of salvation
To understand how Christians should apply the OT laws, we need to read the Bible as an unfolding story. It’s a story of how the world, though created good by God (Genesis 1-2), was corrupted by humanity’s rebellion (Genesis 3; Romans 8:18-23), and is now being redeemed by God’s grace. And this plan of redemption develops in stages—first God gives a promise of redemption (Genesis 3:15), and then he selects one man, Abraham, to be the vehicle of blessing to the rest of the world (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham’s descendants become the nation of Israel, with whom God makes a covenant at Mount Sinai after delivering them from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 24:7-8). It is important to remember where Israel is at in the story when the law is given to them—they are an infant nation, wandering in the wilderness, surrounded by pagan neighbors and in need of divine instruction. The law is therefore only the beginning of God’s revelation to his people, and is further developed and clarified as the history of redemption unfolds.
When God gave the Israelites the law, it served several purposes. First, it served to show God’s own holy and loving character, which his people are supposed to reflect (Leviticus 19:2). Second, it served to show the people their sin and need for God’s mercy (Deuteronomy 9:4-6). Third, it separated them from their pagan Gentile neighbors, whose practices had become an abomination to the Lord (Leviticus 18:3,27). Fourth, it established an elaborate priestly and sacrificial system (Leviticus 1-10)—the priesthood showed the people their need for an intermediary to approach God, while the sacrifices pointed to their need for a means of atonement to remove their sins. And fifth, the law enabled Israel to fulfill its unique historical role as a theocracy, where church and state were joined together in a priestly kingdom (Exodus 19:6).
The NT also sheds some light on the role that OT laws played. In a discussion on divorce, Jesus told the Pharisees that Moses permitted the Israelites to divorce on more relaxed grounds because of their “hardness of heart,” but that was not a part of God’s intention from creation (Matthew 19:8). God was willing to make certain concessions for Israel in light of their stubbornness, in order to set a minimum level of civility. But these laws were not the ideal, and they anticipated the revelation of a greater righteousness in Jesus. Likewise, Paul says that the law served as a “guardian” (or even a babysitter!), restraining Israel’s sin until Christ would come and deal definitively with sin (Galatians 3:19-26).
With the coming of Christ, the OT reaches the goal toward which it was heading. We now enter into a new act of the unfolding story, which brings both continuity and change with respect to the law. When Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he quotes from the OT: love God, and then love your neighbor (Matthew 22:35-40). This doesn’t change for Christians. But with Jesus’ death and resurrection, several things do change. First, his atoning death is accepted by God as a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice on our behalf (Hebrews 9:26). The OT sacrifices were necessary for their time, but they were merely an imperfect shadow, pointing to the reality that Christians now possess in Jesus. Second, the boundaries of God’s people have expanded to include all the nations of the earth, so that now there is no longer any distinction between Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:28). Christians have differing views about what exactly happens to ethnic Israel after Jesus (does the church somehow replace Israel, or do the promises to Israel continue?), but almost all agree that the church does not play the role of a theocracy like OT Israel did.
Asking the right questions
So where does all of that leave us in relation to the OT laws? Many Christians are quick to jump to the personal application question—“How does this or that OT law apply to me?” But to do this is to fail to see the primary purpose of the law, which is to shape our understanding of God’s own holy character and of ourselves as beings created in God’s image, marred by our own rebellion, and restored by God’s grace. Therefore, when we approach any given OT law, we should begin by first asking these questions:
- What does this law tell me about God’s holy and righteous character?
- What does this law tell me about my own sin and need for redemption?
- What does this law tell me about my relationship and responsibility to my neighbors? To other believers? To unbelievers?
- What does this law tell me about how the world works?
- If this law reflects a different cultural/historical setting, what general principle can I derive from it that can bridge the gap to my own cultural/historical setting?
Asking these questions first will help give us the proper mindset as we then come to wrestle with matters of concrete application. We need to keep in mind that all of the OT is God’s Word, and therefore all OT laws have authority, value, and significance. But the question we as Christians need to ask is, how do these laws apply to us in light of the fact that Jesus has come? This isn’t always easy to answer, but as a general rule, most OT laws give us direct guidance on how we should live, EXCEPT:
- Those laws that served to distinguish Jews from Gentiles, such as circumcision, kosher food laws, etc. Now that Christ has come, he has created a new and unified people by tearing down the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:14-16).1
- Those laws that established the priestly/sacrificial system. With Jesus as our great High Priest and perfect sacrifice, we no longer need to rely on the types and shadows of the OT ceremonies.
- Those laws that established Israel’s role as a theocracy. It is not the church’s job to bear the sword to punish sin, but rather to proclaim God’s Word faithfully and make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19). That is why, for example, we don’t stone adulterers.
- Those laws that were given to Israel as a concession due to their spiritual immaturity and hardness of heart. Sometimes the NT actually “raises the bar” set by OT laws, such as in the case of divorce (Matthew 19:9) or slavery (Colossians 4:1; Philemon 16).
While these categories will go a long way in helping Christians apply OT laws, they won’t answer every question for us, and it might not always be easy to tell if a certain law falls into any of these categories. Sometimes we are left with ambiguity. For example, what are Christians supposed to do about the Sabbath? On the one hand, it stems from the creation order (Genesis 2:2-3), and it is one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11), which suggests universal validity. On the other hand, Jesus was frequently accused of breaking the Sabbath (John 5:18), while Paul says that it’s okay to esteem all days equally (Romans 14:5) and that we should not pass judgment on each other with respect to Sabbaths (Colossians 2:16). Christians have different ways of dealing with all of these texts, leading to differing conclusions. At the end of the day, we may not get all of our questions resolved, but the important thing is that we as Christians act in wisdom, treating God’s Word with respect and treating our brothers and sisters in Christ with love.
1 Some interpreters may attempt to include OT sexual laws in this category as well (Leviticus 18), suggesting that, for example, homosexuality should no longer be considered a sin. But the NT shows that God’s purposes and parameters for human sexuality have remained the same since creation, and are therefore not restricted to OT Israel (1 Corinthians 6:9-20).
Why Does It Matter?
Christians confess that the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the central event of all history. It marks the beginning of God’s renewal of all creation, and it gives us a basis for hope in our own future deliverance from the corrupting effects of sin and death. The apostle Paul said that if Jesus was not truly raised from the dead, then our faith is a lost cause, and Christians should be pitied more than anyone else on the planet (1 Corinthians 15:14-19). But if Jesus has indeed risen and conquered the grave, then that stands as the most powerful testimony for the truth of the Christian faith and for our hope in a new embodied existence. In an age where the very possibility of miracles is suspect, believers face a tremendous challenge in defending the historical truth of Jesus’ resurrection. But it is possible to meet this challenge head-on by starting on the skeptics’ own ground.
What Are the Facts?
There are four historical facts related to Christ’s resurrection that even most skeptical scholars generally agree are true. These facts are: 1) Jesus was buried in a tomb after his crucifixion; 2) this tomb was found empty on the third day after his crucifixion; 3) Jesus’ disciples claimed to have seen him alive on several occasions after his death; and 4) these disciples experienced a radical change in their lifestyle and beliefs due to their conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead. If we can establish these four pieces of evidence, then we find that the best explanation for them is that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
The first piece of evidence is the burial of Jesus, which can be considered a historical fact because we have multiple, independent sources for it. Jesus’ burial is recorded in all four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), but our earliest source is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church (1 Cor 15:4), which was written as early as 55 AD—only twenty-five years after the event, and well within the lifetimes of most eyewitnesses!
The second piece of evidence is the empty tomb, which we also have several sources for. It’s recorded in all four gospels, and it is clearly implied in 1 Corinthians 15 (would it make any sense for Paul to say that Jesus was buried and then raised, but that his body was still in the tomb?). On top of that, in each of the gospels, we read that the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb were women. But in first-century Jewish culture, women were considered unreliable as witnesses. So if the gospel authors were making the story up, why present women as the primary witnesses? Wouldn’t that undermine the story’s believability? But the fact that the gospel authors are all in agreement on this “embarrassing” detail strongly suggests that they were more concerned with presenting the truth than with furthering their own agenda.
The third piece of evidence is the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. The accounts of these appearances are very numerous. We read about his appearances to the women disciples, the apostles, and later Paul (who had previously been a persecutor of Christians) on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). The most detailed list of post-mortem appearances occurs in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, which, as mentioned above, was written far too early to be legendary, and could have been refuted by eyewitnesses if false.
Finally, the fourth piece of evidence is the life-changing conviction of the disciples that Jesus was resurrected. This is perhaps the most certain historical fact of all the four, because we have the very testimony of the disciples themselves in the New Testament. And as later church tradition tells us, every last one of the apostles (except John, who spent his final years in exile) ultimately died for his faith in the risen Messiah. What is so peculiar about this historical fact is that it has no precedent in ancient Jewish belief. Most Jews expected a general resurrection of the dead at the end of history, but no one ever thought that anyone could be resurrected in the middle of history. So how is it that we can account for the fact that all of Jesus’ followers came to the sudden and unanimous conviction that their crucified leader was resurrected?
What Does It All Mean?
Although there are a few radical scholars here and there who will reject one or two of the above lines of evidence, most agree that they are historical facts. So the question becomes, how do we put all of the pieces of the puzzle together? How can we make sense of it all in a coherent way? Several theories have been put forward to explain these facts without resorting to divine intervention, but they all fall short for one reason or another.
The first theory put forward by skeptics is the swoon theory. This states that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross; he only fainted or “swooned,” woke up in the tomb, reappeared to his disciples and convinced them that he had risen from the dead. But this theory is riddled with problems. To begin with, it underestimates the efficiency of Roman execution. Crucifixion was a brutal death by asphyxiation, and it is hardly likely that anyone could survive it. And not only that, but John 19:34-35 tells us that a Roman soldier also thrust a spear into Jesus’ side to ensure that he had indeed died. But even if Jesus could survive all that, are we really to believe that he could wake up after three days in a tomb, with no food or water, manage to roll away a massive boulder, sneak past the Roman guard, and somehow convince all his followers that he was the victorious conqueror of death? Such a scenario seriously stretches credibility.
Another theory advanced by the critics of Christianity is the stolen-body theory. According to this theory, Jesus’ followers secretly stole his body in the middle of the night and told the world that he had been raised from the dead. But there are several difficulties with this view as well. First, we have to ask, could the disciples have even pulled it off? For this to have happened, all of the Roman guards would have had to be asleep at the same time, and the disciples would have had to break the seal on the tomb without waking them up. But even if that were possible, we are still faced with the question of motive. What would the disciples have had to gain from telling such a story? Not money, or fame, or power—in fact, quite the opposite. Jesus’ disciples faced persecution, ostracism, and ultimately martyrdom for their testimony to the resurrection. It is possible that someone might die for a lie if they believed it to be true, but who would ever die for what they knew to be false? And lastly, this theory cannot account for the conversion of doubters and opponents of Christianity like James and Paul, who claimed to have seen Jesus risen from the dead.
A third theory suggested to explain away the facts is the hallucination theory. According to this view, Jesus’ disciples only experienced hallucinatory visions of him, which were brought on by their state of severe emotional distress. But these visions convinced them that Jesus had indeed resurrected, and they therefore devoted the rest of their lives to that conviction. This is probably the weakest of all the skeptical theories. First, it cannot account for an empty tomb at all. If the disciples were only experiencing hallucinations, then what happened to the actual body of Jesus? Second, hallucinations don’t occur en masse. They occur on an individual level, but Jesus’ most-mortem appearances were public and frequent. And according to John 21:12-13, Jesus actually ate a breakfast of fish and bread with his disciples! Do hallucinations do that? Lastly, even if the disciples were experiencing hallucinations, how did they then come to the conclusion that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, rather than, say, simply a ghost? As mentioned above, Jewish theology at that time had no precedent for an individual being resurrected before the end of history.
So if all of the skeptical theories fall short, then by process of elimination, we can only conclude that Jesus was actually physically raised from the dead. It might be too fantastic a claim for many, but in the words of Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” But for those who can accept the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, it has massive life-changing consequences. It means that Jesus’ testimony about himself—that he is the Son of God made flesh to atone for the sins of humanity and to inaugurate a new creation—must be true. And such a testimony, if true, demands our obedient response.
William Lane Craig. Reasonable Faith, 3rd edition. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008. Chapter 8.
Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears. Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010. Chapter 9.
What’s the problem?
Evangelical Christians use the term “inerrancy” to describe their belief that the Bible, in its original documents, is completely free of error in all matters on which it speaks.1 This view goes back to the Bible’s own testimony concerning itself. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the apostle Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” Likewise, Proverbs 30:5 says that “every word of God proves true,” while Jesus himself calls the Bible the unbreakable Word of God (John 10:35). Based on this biblical testimony, Christians say that the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments were written by men who were moved by the Holy Spirit to communicate God’s truth. As the apostle Peter writes, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21). This divine inspiration didn’t override these men’s unique personalities and writing styles, but it did protect them from falsehood.
The doctrine of inerrancy has met with challenges throughout the years, not only by non-Christians, but even by some Christians as well. While non-Christians may try to deny the truth and authority of Scripture altogether,2 there are Christians who prefer to speak of “infallibility”3 but not inerrancy, or “limited inerrancy,” or “inerrancy of purpose/intent.”4 According to these more restricted definitions, while Scripture might be wholly true in matters of faith and practice, it may contain relatively minor errors in matters of, say, history and science.5
All of these alternative views of the Bible stem from a variety of objections to the traditional view. Some of these objections have to do with basic worldview differences—for example, a skeptic may deny the existence of God or the possibility of miracles, and therefore cannot affirm the truth of all Scripture. Other objections come from difficulties in reconciling biblical narratives with what we understand about the world through science—for example, how do we explain Joshua’s “long day” when the sun stood still in the sky (Joshua 10:12-13)? And other objections come from perceived contradictions between particular biblical passages—for example, did Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning of his ministry (John 2:13-21) or at the end (Matthew 21:12-13)? The list of objections is long. At the same time, nearly all of these objections have been around for quite a long time, giving Christians plenty of time to respond to them. So one should generally be very suspicious of radical new claims that allegedly undermine the reliability of Scripture; odds are a little research will show that Christians have had adequate responses to such claims for decades or even centuries.
What’s at stake in the question?
Although we wouldn’t want to make inerrancy a doctrine essential for salvation, it is not a trivial issue either. Denying it would have very damaging implications for our theology, for a number of reasons. First, if the Bible really is the Word of God, then the trustworthiness of Scripture is bound up with the very trustworthiness of God. To say that the Bible is capable of error is to say that God himself is capable of error—and such a God would clearly not be the God of the Bible.
Second, a diminished view of Scripture casts a shadow of doubt on our ability to know about God and the way of salvation. If the Bible contains errors in matters of history or science (which, according to the critics, we can verify), how can we know if it is free of error in matters of faith or morality (which we can’t always verify)? What’s more, the distinction between “history” and “faith” is one that the Bible itself collapses. Jesus’ own resurrection, for instance, seems to be a matter for both. So our doctrine of Scripture is directly tied to our doctrine of God and our ability to know him and his will. Christian critics of inerrancy may still hold to orthodox views of God and salvation in spite of their lower view of Scripture, but they can only do this by being inconsistent.
How do we respond?
Inerrancy matters, but we can’t just sweep all the objections under the rug; we need to be able to address such challenges. One approach might be to tackle each and every alleged error or contradiction point-by-point, and many evangelical Christian authors have attempted to do precisely that.6 But the problem with such an approach is that it is 1) extremely time-consuming, and 2) unlikely to persuade a skeptic. Marshaling a cumulative case for inerrancy will not be enough to bring an unbeliever to Christ.
Instead, it is probably better to defend Scripture at the level of foundational beliefs and presuppositions. A good place to start might be by asking what the critics actually mean by “error” and whether they are jumping to their conclusions too hastily. Are they reading the Bible on its own terms, or are they importing the assumptions of their own worldview (like assuming miracles can’t happen)? And have they actually taken into consideration things like genre, style, and context, or are they reading the text too woodenly? And do they attempt to give Scripture the benefit of the doubt by assuming coherence, as we ought to with any other literary text? In other words, do they allow the Bible to be innocent until proven guilty?
Additionally, with unbelievers, one should first present a case that God actually exists and has spoken through Scripture. With believers who question inerrancy, one should start with the character of God and show his relationship to the Bible. That is, our doctrine of Scripture should be based on our doctrine of God. A simple argument for inerrancy would therefore run something like this:
- God cannot err.
- Scripture is God’s Word.
- Therefore, Scripture cannot err.
If that is not a persuasive enough argument, one could make a case based on Jesus’ own view of Scripture. It would run something like this:
- The Gospels are basically as reliable as any other ancient historical document.7
- The Gospels present evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection.
- The best explanation of the evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection is that Jesus was indeed resurrected. (See forthcoming post on Jesus’ Resurrection)
- If Jesus was indeed resurrected, that verifies his own testimony concerning himself, God, and Scripture.
- Jesus affirmed the truth, inspiration and authority of Scripture.8
- Therefore, we should also affirm the truth, inspiration and authority of Scripture.
Such an approach is much more effective than attempting to tackle every single apparent error or contradiction in the Bible, and it also helps us to see why inerrancy is so important. If God’s character is tied to Scripture, and if Jesus held to a high view of Scripture, then we should likewise confess a high view of Scripture.9
With this framework, we can approach Scripture from a posture of trust rather than skepticism, giving it the benefit of the doubt when we run into problematic passages. In other words, there should be a presumption of truth when we read the Bible (as with any other book!). Critics of inerrancy do not allow for this presumption of truth, so it skews their reading of the Bible in a direction that only confirms their skepticism. St. Augustine, one of the greatest theologians in the history of the church, perhaps put it best when he said: “If we are perplexed by any apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either  the manuscript is faulty,10  the translation is wrong, or  you have not understood.”11 In the end, we may not get answers to all the questions that skeptics raise about the Bible. But we don’t need to have all the answers in order to confess the trustworthiness of God’s Word. While it is helpful to seek resolutions to all the difficult passages, our own human ignorance should not undermine our confidence in the fact that God has spoken to us truly and authoritatively in the pages of the Bible.
Gleason Archer, The New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.
Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007.
Norm Geisler, Inerrancy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980.
R.C. Sproul, Defending Your Faith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009.
1 A fuller description of “inerrancy” can be found in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy: http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf
2 For example, agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has made a career out of attacking the traditional Christian view of the Bible. See his books Misquoting Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), Jesus, Interrupted (New York: HarperOne, 2010), etc.
3 The term “infallibility” means “incapable of leading into error/falsehood.” Some Christians think this is a more modest claim than inerrancy, while others think it is actually a stronger claim.
4 This more limited view of inerrancy is supported, for example, by Fuller Theological Seminary. See their website: http://www.fuller.edu/About-fuller/what-we-believe-and-teach.aspx
5 Of course, this inevitably raises the problem of who gets to decide what counts as a “minor” error and what criteria to use to distinguish between what is major and what is minor.
6 See Gleason Archer’s New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001) or Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007).
7 This is not the same as assuming inerrancy, so it is not a circular argument. Further, critics who deny this point are guilty of applying a double standard to the Bible by treating it with more suspicion than other ancient texts.
8 Several biblical passages reveal this: Matthew 5:18; 15:3-6; Mark 12:36; John 10:35; etc.
9 We should also remember that a proper view of Scripture is only possible through the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s heart. An unbeliever cannot read Scripture rightly, no matter how persuasive our arguments may be (John 6:44; Romans 8:7).
10 Skeptics often claim that the manuscripts of the Bible are so riddled with textual variations that they make the original documents unrecoverable. But this is a gross exaggeration of the facts, and most scholars agree that it is possible to accurately recover almost all of the biblical text. See Daniel Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011).
11 St. Augustine, Reply to Faustus 11.5.
Alvin Plantinga’s central argument in Where the Conflict Really Lies (Oxford University Press, 2011) is that, while there is superficial conflict between science and theism,¹ there is actually a deep concord between them; further, while there is a superficial concord between science and naturalism,² there is actually a deep conflict between them. Naturalism has become so deeply ingrained in the thought of most western academics today that to question it is considered tantamount to questioning science itself. But Plantinga brilliantly turns that notion on its head, first by deconstructing the alleged areas of conflict between science and theism, then by showing areas of concord between science and theism, and finally by demonstrating the impossibility of simultaneously affirming both evolution and naturalism.
Plantinga begins by evaluating the arguments of two of naturalism’s most notorious (or famous, depending on which side of the debate you land on) defenders, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Dawkins and Dennett’s basic claim is that Darwinian evolution has disproven theism. But is that really the case? Plantinga first points out that the theory of evolution makes no metaphysical claims; it merely states that all life on earth has evolved from a common ancestor through natural selection operating on random mutations. But it is logically possible that this entire process was guided by God. While unguided evolution is certainly incompatible with theism, that “unguided” part is a theological add-on to the theory, and can’t possibly be demonstrated scientifically.
Dawkins and Dennet face other problems with their claims. Dawkins in particular seems to reason as follows: 1) I can conceive of a scenario in which the simplest organic systems gradually developed into the most complex systems through a series of successively adaptive mutations. 2) Therefore, it is not astronomically improbable that such a scenario happened. 3) Therefore, this in fact disproves theism. That may be an oversimplification of his argument, but the reader can see quite a few leaps in logic there; just because someone can imagine it, that doesn’t make it so.
Plantinga goes on to rebut the claim that the idea of divine intervention (i.e., miracles) is incompatible with scientific laws. The gist of his argument here is that scientific laws—such as gravity, or the conservation of energy—only apply to systems that are causally closed. But, of course, if God were to act specially to bring about a miracle, we would not be talking about a causally closed system, would we?
Plantinga then addresses some alleged defeaters for theism—namely, evolutionary psychology and higher biblical criticism. I won’t get into the details of his arguments here, but suffice it to say that these aren’t significant defeaters when you analyze them closely. For example, even if there is an evolutionary explanation for why we come to have religious beliefs, that doesn’t make those religious beliefs untrue. After all, it is possible that God could have guided the evolutionary process to bring about religious beliefs in that way. Further, if evolution were true, then there would also be an evolutionary explanation for why we come to believe in evolution! But of course evolutionists don’t think that undermines belief in evolution, so why would it undermine religious belief?
The next section of the book deals with two popular arguments for Intelligent Design—1) the physical argument from fine tuning, and 2) the biological argument from irreducible complexity. The fine-tuning argument states that our universe displays a number of finely tuned laws (like gravity, the speed of light, etc.), such that if the values of these laws were only slightly different from their actual values, then life would not be possible. For example, if the force of gravity were only slightly greater or weaker, then our universe would have either collapsed in on itself or expanded too rapidly for galaxies to form. The argument from irreducible complexity—which was first popularized in Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe—states that there are certain biological systems (such as the bacterial flagellum) that have a minimum degree of complexity, such that they could not be reduced to earlier, simpler stages of development without losing functionality. Behe’s arguments have been criticized with an appalling degree of hostility and derision, which is entirely out of place in academic discussion.
By contrast, Plantinga’s treatment of these arguments is refreshingly measured and charitable. But his conclusion might come as a slight disappointment to Intelligent Design advocates. He thinks that these arguments provide only modest support for theism, and I tend to agree with him here. Part of the problem is that we really have no way of determining the relevant probabilities. For example, the primary naturalistic explanation for fine tuning is the “multiverse” hypothesis combined with the anthropic principle: there may be an infinite number of universes, each of which with different values for its physical laws, and we have to find ourselves in one friendly to life, simply because if we were in a different universe, we wouldn’t be here to observe that fact. Now this has always struck me as a lame argument, like trying to win the lottery by buying all the tickets. But since it is impossible to verify empirically (and thus not scientific!), we have no way of weighing its probability against theism. But Plantinga suggests that a more helpful way forward would be to speak of design discourse rather than design argument. That is, it might be better to speak of perceiving or intuiting design as a basic belief rather than concluding design through logical inference (in the same way we also come to believe in the past, the existence of other minds, etc.). In this sense, we don’t need to present an argument for design, any more than we need to present an argument for the basic reliability of our memory. But that doesn’t mean that such beliefs cannot be disproven; even my own memory sometimes fails me.
Plantinga then argues that the theist is on much firmer ground when it comes to the epistemological foundations of science. In order for us humans to successfully do science, there has to be what medieval scholastics have called an adaequatio intellectus ad rem—a match between our minds and the real world. Something has to account for the fact that our cognitive faculties actually give us reliable access to the deep structure of reality. Not only are we able to come to a knowledge of things as they appear to us, but we can actually come to understand the laws that underlie them (and how exactly would such knowledge have given our ancestors a survival advantage on the plains of the Serengeti?). Likewise, the universe itself is law-governed, predictable, and intelligible. If naturalism were true, all of this must be taken to be an inexplicable brute fact. But if theism were true, all of this would be expected, given the fact that we are made in God’s image and designed specifically to come to a knowledge of the truth about God, ourselves, and the world we live in.
In the final chapter, Plantinga presents his familiar (to philosophers, at least) evolutionary argument against naturalism: if naturalistic evolution is true, then our minds evolved not with the aim of acquiring true beliefs but with the aim of conferring survival advantage. Therefore, we have no reason to trust what our minds tell us to be true, even when it comes to naturalism itself! In this way, naturalistic evolution becomes self-refuting. Now the objector might argue that holding true beliefs does in fact make an individual more fit to survive (if I rightly believe I should run away from a hungry tiger, I’ll be more likely to survive). But Plantinga points out that this is not in fact the case. If beliefs are nothing more than neural structures responding to environmental stimuli, then what counts is how those neural structures cause our bodies to behave, not the truth value of the beliefs associated with those neural structures. The content of the beliefs could even be the opposite of the truth, so long as the body gets where it needs to go (say, fleeing a predator). In fact, on Darwinian terms you could have an organism responding to its environment in the appropriate way, without ever forming conscious beliefs in the first place.
Overall, I think that Plantinga has done an outstanding job of showing that naturalism is grossly overrated, and not nearly as compatible with science as naturalists would have us think. If I had one complaint about the book, it would probably be that Plantinga is quite a bit more comfortable with theistic evolution than I am. I personally don’t have a problem with an old earth, or some degree of natural selection, or even some limited common descent for animals. But I am pretty skeptical of the productive capacity of genetic mutation, and on theological grounds I think that primate ancestry for humans is problematic. But aside from those reservations, I would highly recommend this book for anyone who desires to understand the true relationship between science and theism/naturalism.
¹ “Theism” is the belief that the universe has been created by a personal, transcendent divine being. This would include Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, among others.
² “Naturalism” is the claim that nature is all that exists; ultimate reality is impersonal. It is often used interchangeably with terms like atheism and materialism, although there are subtle differences between them.
What’s the problem?
Was the universe really created from nothing? Are the “days” of Genesis 1 literal 24-hour days? Is the earth thousands of years old or billions? Can Christians believe in the Big Bang Theory? What about evolution? Does Genesis really describe the sky as a solid dome? How could there have been light on the first day of creation, when the sun and stars were only made on day four? Were Adam and Eve really our first parents? How does that square with hominid fossils and population genetics? Did carnivores only eat vegetables until the time of Noah? Was there really a talking snake in the Garden of Eden? Is there any evidence that Noah’s flood ever happened? Was it global or local? Did all human languages really come from the Tower of Babel? This is just a small sampling of the many questions that come up when Christians try to relate Genesis to science. Addressing each one of them could fill up volumes of books, let alone a single post. The purpose of this post will instead be limited to getting at the “questions behind the questions”—that is, we will explore the presuppositions and methods involved in trying to reconcile Genesis with science.
What is science?
In order to understand how Genesis relates to science, we need to first define what science actually is. At its most basic level, science is simply the study of the world around us. It involves making observations, forming hypotheses based on those observations, testing those hypotheses, and then subjecting them to public scrutiny. Hypotheses that are able to stand up to such scrutiny are often elevated to the level of theory or law (this whole process is referred to as the scientific method). Over the past few centuries, scientists have been able to make tremendous advances for civilization, and the word “science” has become more or less synonymous with critical thinking, intellectual expertise, and technological progress.
However, many mistaken notions have also become associated with science. It is often thought to be a purely objective process, free of any bias—unlike faith, which is often relegated to the realm of private, subjective opinion. As a result, the pronouncements of science are sometimes accepted without question.1 But the reality is that science doesn’t “say” anything; scientists do, and they each carry biases of their own.2 It is simply a fact of human existence that we cannot help but see things from a certain perspective, based on our prior personal commitments. We all see reality through the lens of our particular worldviews and presuppositions. This is not to say that all worldviews are equally valid, and in some cases our lenses can be corrected by observation and evaluation of the data. But lenses are always there.
This should caution us about some of the limitations of science. To begin with, despite the efforts of many to draw a sharp dividing line between science and faith, it is undeniable that science itself rests on certain faith commitments. One cannot use the scientific method to justify the scientific method. Rather, in order for science to work, scientists must assume the reliability of our sense experience, the reliability of our mental processes, and the relative order and predictability of the universe. But such assumptions cannot be accounted for in a materialistic worldview that rejects the possibility of divine intervention. Twentieth-century Christian author C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.”3 In other words, science depends on God for its very legitimacy.4
We also need to be aware of the different ways in which scientists examine regularly occurring phenomena versus non-repeatable events in the past.5 This does not mean that the latter is entirely off limits to scientists. There are times when scientists can and do gain accurate knowledge about the past; for example, forensic scientists regularly investigate crime scenes in order to determine a particular sequence of past events. But when it comes to addressing big questions—like where the universe came from or how life began—scientists are much more dependent upon inferences, and these inferences will in turn be dependent upon their worldview. When scientists work from within a materialistic worldview, that inevitably affects how they may interpret the evidence. So when we examine the book of Genesis, we need to ask, is it really at odds with the scientific evidence, or merely with the materialistic worldview presupposed by many scientists?
Two sources of truth
Christians have historically affirmed that God has revealed the truth about himself in two different ways: through general revelation and special revelation.6 General revelation refers to the non-verbal testimony of creation that is accessible to all people everywhere, while special revelation refers to God’s verbal testimony that is uniquely accessible through Scripture.7 Since both forms of revelation come from God, and since God is by nature wholly truthful, then in principle they cannot contradict each other.8 At the same time, we can only approach God’s revelation from the vantage point of our finite and fallen humanity. Revelation must always be interpreted, and our interpretations can be wrong. So when there appears to be a conflict between Genesis and science, we ought to ask, is the contradiction really between God’s Word and God’s world, or is it rather in the interpretation of one or the other?
Some people would prefer to draw a sharp wall of separation between general and special revelation so as to avoid any potential conflict.9 On this approach, science should deal with the physical world, while theology should be limited to spiritual or moral issues. But such an approach cannot be consistently held, since there are times when the two realms do indeed speak on the same subject matter (such as the origin of humanity). So rather than adopting a position of either conflict or compartmentalization with respect to God’s revelation, Old Testament scholar C. John Collins advocates a position of coordination, in which “apparent conflict triggers a revision in interpretation that yields a harmony.”10 This need for mutually-correcting interpretations should not undermine our confidence in knowing and understanding God’s truth, but instead should foster in us a spirit of humility, open-mindedness, and critical thinking.
The language of Genesis and the language of science
C.S. Lewis once made the following observation about language:
I begin with three sentences (1) It was very cold (2) There were 13 degrees of frost (3) ‘Ah, bitter chill it was! The owl, for all his feathers was a-cold; The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass, And silent was the flock in woolly fold: Numb’d were the Beadsman’s fingers.’ I should describe the first as Ordinary language, the second as Scientific language, and the third as Poetic language…Two and three are improved uses of the same language used in one. Scientific and Poetic language are two different artificial perfections of Ordinary: artificial, because they depend on skills; different, because they improve the ordinary in two different directions.11
Lewis’s point here is that language can be used in a variety of ways, depending on its purpose. While we normally operate in the realm of ordinary language, scientific language may be more appropriate when mathematical precision is needed, and poetic language may be more appropriate when the author wants to appeal to the audience’s sense of beauty or imagination. It is important to recognize that one form of language isn’t “better” than the others; they are each uniquely suited for a particular task.
So when it comes to interpreting Genesis, we need to ask, what kind of language does it use? As discussed in Part 1 of this post, Genesis is quite evidently meant to be read as real history, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand of it exact, scientific precision. Nor should we necessarily expect the author of Genesis to write history in the same way as modern historians. Although it wouldn’t be quite accurate to classify Genesis as poetry, there are certainly poetic elements within it, such as parallelism (“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;” Gen. 1:27), refrain (“And there was evening and there was morning;” Gen. 1:5ff.), anthropomorphism (God “breathes” life into Adam; Gen. 2:7), and metaphor (the “windows” of heaven open; Gen. 7:11). Genesis also makes frequent use of what is known as phenomenological language—that is, the language of appearances.12 This should guard us from imposing a strict literalism on the text.13 What Genesis records is true, but it must be read according to the author’s intentions rather than as a modern science textbook.
All of these points should help to give us the proper mindset when relating God’s general revelation to his special revelation. Science is a valuable tool, but it can still be subject to error and bias. Genesis is a reliable record of our history, but it needs to be read on its own literary terms. When it comes to addressing particular areas of supposed conflict, we may find that an honest evaluation of the scientific evidence will lead us to revise our interpretation of the biblical text. Conversely, we may also find that certain biblical truths set limits on what scientific theories are allowable (such as how the doctrine of the image of God necessarily rules out certain theories regarding human origins). But in neither case are we forced to say that God’s revelation is self-contradictory. We may err in our understanding, but God’s Word never errs.
Collins, C. John. Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003.
Poythress, Vern. Redeeming Science. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006.
West, John G., editor. The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society. Seattle, WA: Discovery Institute Press, 2012.
1 It is ironic that in our postmodern culture, which tends to relativize all truth claims, scientists still enjoy a virtually sacrosanct authority.
2 This point has been confirmed by twentieth-century Hungarian scientist Michael Polanyi. See Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 39ff.
3 C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 106.
4 These comments only scratch the surface of a very complex philosophical debate about how our minds relate to the physical world. But the basic point is that scientists cannot explain how, if our minds are merely the products of non-rational physical forces, we can trust them to make rational judgments about the world. For more information, see Thomas Nagel, Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012).
5 This distinction is sometimes referred to as “nomothetic” science versus “historical” science. See C. John Collins, “Miracles, Intelligent Design, and God-of-the-Gaps,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 55.1 (March 2003), 25.
6 The Belgic Confession, Art. 2; The Westminster Confession of Faith 1.1
7 For those who question the reliability of Scripture as God’s Word, see the following post: Are There Errors in the Bible? (forthcoming)
8 See Francis Schaeffer, No Final Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979).
9 This is the approach of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who used the term “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” (or NOMA) to refer to this kind of strict compartmentalization. Many in this camp tend to say that science only deals with the “what” and “how,” while religion only deals with the “who” and “why.”
10 Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 51.
11 C.S. Lewis, “The Language of Religion,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 129.
12 An example of phenomenological (or simply “phenomenal”) language in English would be the “rising” and “setting” of the sun. Technically, it isn’t the sun that moves, but rather the earth rotating on its axis. But in the context of ordinary language, there is nothing wrong with simply describing things as they appear to us. See Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 92.
13 At the same time, rejecting literalism doesn’t justify an interpretive “free-for-all” where any reading of the text is as good as any other. As C.S. Lewis once put it, to interpret Genesis however we want “is like saying that because ‘My heart is broken’ contains a metaphor, it therefore means ‘I feel very cheerful.’ This mode of interpretation I regard, frankly, as nonsense.” Lewis, Miracles, 125.