What the authors of Scripture said, God said—right? It’s a concise way of explaining the sometimes difficult doctrine of Scriptural inspiration. The average Christian, then, can feel comfortable trusting in the Bible’s authority and get down to the business of learning from it.
But Dr. John W. Hilber, one of two 2016-17 Senior Henry Fellows participating in the inaugural year of the Creation Project, worries this simplification causes more confusion than it is worth—especially when it comes to questions of Scripture and science. It’s too easy to ignore literary, contextual, and cultural evidence in favor of the plain sense of the text in whatever language you’re reading it.
Biblical interpretation can get dicey, after all, even among scholars who widely agree on basic principles. And when it comes to the doctrine of creation, things can get fraught pretty quickly because it has great significance.
“The doctrine of creation might be the most important issue in theology,”“The doctrine of creation might be the most important issue in theology,” Hilber says, “because it speaks to the most fundamental question we can ask: ‘Who/what is God?’ . . . What we think about ourselves as human beings, whether it be our worth, our purpose, or our values, depends in large measure on the answer to this same question.”
Hilber’s project during his fellowship will be to develop a new tool for biblical hermeneutics to help scholars find more common ground. This should aid in interpretation generally and with the creation account specifically, and it could have broader implications for the way the church views the relationship between Scripture and science.
The Next Step in the Bible & Science Conversation
Hilber’s interest in science and the Bible began during his undergraduate studies in geology and continued into his PhD work at Cambridge comparing prophecy in the psalms with that in neo-Assyrian sources. Now at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, he has published widely on the relationship of biblical history, prophecy, and poetry to ancient eastern contexts, and his book on the psalms was reprinted as part of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary series.
“My love of both the Bible and natural sciences has never waned,” he says, “to varying degrees, I have tracked the conversation between science and the Bible for 40 years.”
That includes two Templeton Foundation colloquia on science and the doctrine of creation, when Hilber saw how even broad evangelical agreement on the doctrine of accommodation (that God uses finite, human means to communicate eternal truths) did not significantly contribute to broad agreement on how to interpret Genesis.
Thus, Hilber was eager to participate in the Creation Project’s first-year topic, Reading Genesis in an Age of Science, viewing it as “the next step in this widening conversation on the relationship between the biblical doctrine of creation and science.”
Not Just Context: Relevance
He believes, specifically, that developments in the communications model known as “relevance theory” can inform both biblical hermeneutics and doctrines such as divine accommodation and biblical inerrancy in ways that will prove to harmonize the truths of revelation with the observations of science.
Relevance Theory plays a central role in Hilber’s work. The theory seeks to articulate the ways we often rely heavily upon context to speak efficiently. “Often people think about communication as though it were simply ‘decoding’ words that another is speaking,” he explains. “In a decoding model, we have a mental dictionary of vocabulary words and a mental framework of how words combine grammatically. By merging vocabulary and grammar we create and interpret meaning.
“But communication is much more complex than this. In actual practice, we infer (or deduce) meaning from another person’s expression. Our inferences are informed by not only the words we hear but also by the context in which these words were spoken.”
In other words, we need to try to reconstruct the ancient mind to recognize that its forms of communications were as complex—and often unconscious or automatic—as ours. It’s not enough just to know about ancient cultures; we need to also consider how cultural ways of living, thinking, speaking, and writing would inform a biblical author’s specific act of inscription.
The search for the most relevant and specific context can become finicky, even arbitrary, so to get at this mindset regarding Genesis 1, Hilber will survey creation themes and motifs in the Old Testament, looking for ways later authors understood and appropriated their source material. Later authors may be separated from the Genesis author by great periods of time, but they will still be closer to that author’s communicative context than we are.
One place this gets really interesting is in the question of divine or dual authorship of Scripture. The human authors of the Bible believed things about the natural world that are no longer part of our context. To the extent that those former beliefs were false and our current ones are true, we must conclude that God did not believe those things even as he inspired the words. Hilber hopes relevance theory can begin to “help untangle the intentions of divine and human authors.”
Unconcerned by the Cracks
Interpretive disagreements don’t signal insurmountable problems to Hilber; it’s just part of being human. “No worldview is without cracks,” he says. “Human understanding (even of science, by the way) is far from complete.”
Hilber believes the faithful can have confidence in the Spirit’s leadership:
“The Church struggled with the relationship between the Bible and science in the days of St. Augustine regarding a flat earth. New challenges emerged after the discovery of the new world and through the Copernican revolution. The Spirit faithfully guided the Church in the past and continues to do so today.
“So be of good cheer!”
Carl F. H. Henry Resident Fellows (2016-2017)
C. John Collins, “Genesis 1–11: Poetry, History, Science, Truth”
John Hilber, “Relevance Theory and Divine Accommodation”
Hans Madueme, “The Evolution of Sin? Sin, Theistic Evolution, and the Biological Question—A Theological Account”
Clinton Ohlers, “Evangelicals and Genesis, Before and After Darwin”
Todd Patterson, “Mimesis in the Biblical Historical Narrative of Gen 1-2”