If the first talking snake had kept shtum, we wouldn't be here. Eve wouldn't have eaten the forbidden fruit. But she listened and was curious. So she fell into humanity, thank God. Good old snake, say I. I celebrate its independence of mind. Satan? Neh, that's a later interpretation. The snake was part of the divine purpose. God allowed it into the garden, aware of its linguistic abilities. He knew what would happen. Jesus commended dove-like innocence. AND the wisdom ... of the snake.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Scoffing at wilful ignorance

There are certain Bible texts that creationists can be relied on to hurl at their opponents, of which this is among the most frequently unleashed:

"in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’ They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless."

2 Peter 3. 3-7

Earlier (ch 2. vv 4 & 5) we have been told that "God did not spare .... the ancient world, even though he saved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood on a world of the ungodly ..." so there is no doubt that this writer thought in terms of Noah’s flood as a world-wide catastrophe. In creationist eyes that settles the matter, for Peter (if it was he: this epistle’s authorship is disputed but we can let that pass) wrote only as God directed him and could have made no error. The Flood happened, QED. Anyone who questions this comes under the heading of "scoffer", and clearly the term refers to modern sceptics who question the historical accuracy of Genesis.

It’s a good principle of Biblical interpretation that writers are always speaking to their own generation, taking no thought for what might be read into their words centuries later. Thus Peter would have had more urgent things to do than compose a prophecy which would not be fulfilled for nearly two millennia, and by "scoffers" he doubtless had a particular group of people in mind who were in evidence at the time he wrote. Notice too that their scoffing is motivated by the desire to "indulge their own lusts", free from fear that a dreadful judgement awaited them. The writer’s concern is to hearten his Christian readers by reminding them that judgement does indeed await, and woe betide the scoffers then. In God’s own time it will come, but in fire rather than water: think not so much Noah, more Sodom and Gomorrah.

The scoffers of 2 Peter are the same bunch as in the letter of Jude, which it resembles and may be influenced by the same source. Here they are also described as devoid of the Spirit and causing divisions: at which point it is very tempting to turn the tables on creationism and point out that since it is their dogmatism, their pseudoscience and their wilful ignorance that has wrought so much division among Christians over the issue of literalism, they are the scoffers of whom the apostle wrote. For creationists DO scoff: at mainstream science, mainstream Biblical scholarship, mainstream Christianity. They are the false teachers against whom we are warned elsewhere in the New Testament. Creationism’s opponents are just as likely to be Christians like me, hopefully not devoid of the Spirit, as atheists having a laugh.

Tempting - but cheap. If 2 Peter isn’t about the critics of modern fundamentalism, it isn’t about modern fundamentalism either: one can’t have it both ways. I must leave the Bible to vindicate other people’s prejudices, and fall back on worthier methods of justifying my own, entirely sound, judgements. It would be nice if creationists were to admit that "sceptics" are no less concerned for the truth than they profess to be themselves; they are not motivated by lustful self-indulgence but a desire for honest scholarship. But this is war, they can’t be expected to give their enemies a good press.

What though about those references to Noah’s Flood as literal history: can I explain these away? That is not the Snake's way, any more than I would explain away the six "days" of creation as lasting for far longer than 24 hours. The Bible says day, it means day in the usual sense. Peter speaks of a world wide flood and that’s what he means. But must he have been right? Am I bound to believe him?

Theology is done by weighing a range of considerations, of which scripture is one. Fundamentalists may speak about using the Bible and nothing but; in practice they rely on - aaagh! - human reason just as much as any rotten "liberal", to understand and interpret what each verse means. They will reason away like crazy to justify their interpretations against others - even, sometimes, those of other fundamentalists. The rest of us accept that other factors come into play, of which the most relevant here is the limited knowledge of the Bible’s writers compared to ours. (This argument comes up frequently in discussions about homosexuality, which simply was not understood in the days of Leviticus.)

Question: did Peter have the remotest idea how big the earth is? how many races of people existed to whom even the term "Gentile" hardly applies, since they were completely unaware of any covenant by which they might or might not be embraced? Did he know how many kinds of animals exist that might have needed a passage on the Ark, and the immense distances they would have had to cross to obtain it? It’s because we know these things now that attempts to prove the Ark was a practical proposition, and the Flood a global event, come across as so ludicrous. Conclusion: Peter was mistaken about the Flood’s extent, understandably enough in the light of his limited geographical and other knowledge.

BUT - and creationists miss this - the mistake is incidental to his main point. He does not need to establish to our satisfaction that every last square inch of land was submerged, all life annihilated except the living cargo of the Ark. He reminds us of the story as it has come down to us, drawing from it the awesome lesson: God will come in judgement that will overwhelm us. Another instance of divine wrath is supplied by a verse I left out earlier, so here it is now:

"by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly" (ch2 v6)
and there is no suggestion this was any more than a purely local firestorm. Global or local, and for that matter historical fact or legend, Noah’s flood stands as an awful warning to those who imagine God can be mocked. Peter is wrong about history, as anyone would have been at the time; that does not invalidate his message. Creationists had better find themselves another rock to throw.


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