Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Is Your Faith Childish--or Childlike?

In a recent post theologian Dr. Peter Enns belittles belief in the historicity of Genesis as "childish". He approvingly cites the rationalist German Old Testament scholar Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), who stated:
"A child, indeed, unable to distinguish between reality and poetry, loses something when it is told that its dearest stories are “not true.” But the modern theologian should be further developed. The evangelical churches and their chosen representatives would do well not to dispute the fact that Genesis contains legends–as has been done too frequently–but to recognize that the knowledge of this fact is the indispensable condition to an historical understanding of Genesis."
According to Dr Enns, we should be adults, acknowledging that Genesis contains legends and thus deepening our understanding of Scripture. Enns laments:
"However,  instead of helping people process the information, the evangelical tradition has a strong track record of minimizing the deep impact of historical study on how Scripture is understood, or providing answers that strain and groan to maintain the old ways despite the evidence–in other words, of working hard to legitimize a childish reading of Genesis. 
I really, really, really wish that hadn’t happened. I really do."
Dr Enns comments:
Jesus’ call is to be childlike, not childISH. I think 1 Cor 13:11 is very appropriate here. “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

1. Childlike versus Childish Faith
So what is the difference between childish and childlike? Both are related to childhood. However, childish has negative connotations (e.g., immature, foolish, ignorant, selfish), whereas childlike is more positive (e.g., innocent, pure, trusting).

In the Bible, a childlike faith is one that takes God at His word, without doubting (Cf Heb.11). Jesus said,
“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
Likewise, David wrote,
 “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps. 131:1b-2).
What about Enns' reference to the putting away of childlike things (1 Cor.13:11)? When read in its proper context, this refers to our current partial knowledge of God being superseded by the fuller knowledge that we shall have in the next life. It certainly does not entail--as Enns would have it-- that our reading of the Bible must be driven by worldly wisdom. Indeed, Paul starkly contrasts the "foolishness" of faith with worldly "wisdom" (I Cor.1).

2. Eliminating Childishness from Faith
Why did Gunkel believe Genesis was legend rather than history? Because it contained accounts of miracles. Gunkel writes:
The clearest criterion of legend is that it frequently reports things that are quite incredible...However cautious the modern historian may be in declaring anything impossible, he may declare with all confidence that animals, serpents and she asses, for instance, do not speak and never have spoken.  That there’s no tree whose fruit confers immortality or knowledge..." (The Legends of Genesis, p.7).
Gunkel's view of Genesis was driven by his acceptance of evolutionary naturalism. This left room for only a deistic God, who did not intervene in the physical world.

Gunkel--like Enns-- simply dismissed the fact that New Testament writers considered Genesis as historical:
The objection is raised that Jesus and the apostles clearly considered these accounts to be fact and not poetry...Suppose they did. The men of the New Testament are not presumed to have been exceptional men in such matters, but shared the point of view of their time.  Hence, we are not warranted in looking to the New Testament for the solution of questions about the literary history of the Old Testament.”  (p.3).
What about New Testament miracles? As far as I know, Gunkel did not address these specifically. But his student, theologian Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976), certainly did. Bultmann, in the same vein as Gunkel, asserts:
"We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. And if we suppose that we can do so ourselves, we must be clear that we can represent this as the attitude of Christian faith only by making the Christian proclamation unintelligible and impossible for our contemporaries." (New Testament and Mythology 1941)
Consequently, Bultmann rejected the physical resurrection of Christ as primitive nonsense, to be interpreted as merely symbolic of man's mastery over his passions.

More recently, theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann has written a book with the descriptive title Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, the Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don't Need to Believe to Have a Living Faith (1995). 

But if even Christ's physical resurrection is to be dismissed as childish, what is left of our Christian faith? We are reminded of Paul's words:
"If Christ has not been raised then your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (1 Cor.15:17).
Clearly, once we permit worldly wisdom to dismiss belief in Biblical miracles as childish, our faith becomes shipwrecked. That is the logical conclusion of Dr Enns' mocking of childlike faith in the plain sense of  Genesis.

The Bible, on the contrary, urges a childlike trust in God's Word and admonishes against a childish faith that is immature and superficial, not grounded sufficiently in the truth of Scripture:
"Until we all attain to the unity of the faith...to mature manhood..so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes..." (Eph.4:13-14).
Such is the childish faith exhibited by Dr Enns in his foolish capitulation to worldly scholarship.


Henrietta said...

Quite a number of young people are favourably mentioned in the Bible. Many of them played a significant role despite their youthfulness. On the contrary: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, IN FAITH, in purity.” ( 1 Tim 4:12) .

The Bible tells of a transcendental dimension where people like Noah, Abraham and Moses heard God speak, like the miracles in the old and new testament and the resurrection that we may miss because of spiritual deafness and blindness.

It demands the faith we read about in Hebrews 11. This faith and God’s revelation knowledge is a free gift, irrespective of one’s age. For example, young as he was, Samuel too heard the voice of God. Henrietta Klaasing, Groblersdal, South Africa

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that those who want to diminish the authority of the Bible use the "legends of other neighbors" approach to do just that. There is, however, another possibility.

If Genesis is the true record of what God has told man he did in the beginning (as passed down from Adam to Enosh and from Enosh ... to Noah) there should be an expectation that those descended from Noah's children will all recall the record of history before the Flood. If we did NOT find a record of a "Creation and Flood Legend" we should find it strange.

So, rather than disputing the Bible record these legends confirm it. But then, as Van Til said: "There is no such thing as a brute fact ... all facts are interpreted facts."

AdoptedSon said...

It seems like Enns and those of his ilk are too quick to agree that just because a mythological text shares themes with the bible that the offending biblical text is myth.

This is similar to knee-jerk reactions to evolution which too quickly accept the "scientific" explanation over the biblical one. We should look to our Father in heaven to guide us into truth.

Thank you for your post (and your lectures this weekend in Maryland - I was priviledged to attend on Saturday)

john byl said...

Thanks for your pertinent comments. It was a pleasure to be in Maryland last week. It was good to meet fellow Christians; I had many interesting discussions on science, Christianity and American history.

Poustman said...

"(1 Cor.13:11), this--when read in its proper context-- refers to our current partial knowledge of God being superseded by the fuller knowledge that we shall have in the next life."

With respect-- and in hearty agreement with your main point about childlikeness-- the exegesis of this passage as contrasting this life with the next is inaccurate. Paul is contrasting the piecemeal revelation and knowledge available via gifts of prophecy etc with the perfection of the completed canon of Scripture, soon to be available after his lifetime.

Thomas Hamilton said...

Coming to this very late. But frankly, I find it absolutely perverse that "biblical scholars" like Enns actually use Mesopotamian traditions which parallel Genesis 1-11 as a reason for disbelieving in the historicity of these chapters. They know (or should know) well that parallels to Genesis 1-11 are not unique to the Near East. Instead, they are found all over the planet, not merely generically, but in detail. For example, a number of Native American flood stories describe the flood hero sending out a bird (sometimes specifically a raven) out near the end of the flood to find land.

That demonstrates pretty decisively that the better explanation for the parallels in other Near Eastern literature is not borrowing on the part of the biblical authors, but a common memory of a real historical tradition. Why is this never discussed by authors such as Enns?

Mitch C. said...

Excellent observations!
Just wanted to point out a typo -- "wordly wisdom" should be "worldly wisdom".

john byl said...

Woops. I have now corrected that. Thanks