What we need theology for …

Jerry Coyne has commented on Peter Enns’ article about accommodationism, and argues that it proves while accommodationism won’t work. One of his charges against Enns is this:

While I admire Enns’s frank admission that Evangelical Christians must deal with science, he weasels out on the most important questions: the effects on Christian faith of trashing the Old Testament as a literal document, and the reasons why we’re supposed to accept the Old Testament as metaphor but the New Testament as literal. I challenge Enns, who knows these things perfectly well, to come clean about these. His failure to deal head on with the important questions shows, more than anything, why the ministrations of BioLogos won’t work.

So Coyne essentially accuses Enns of ignoring the big questions of the impact this change in attitude will have on Christianity and about when to take parts as literal or metaphorical. The problem is that the first part is, in fact, work for theology or philosophy of religion, two fields that Coyne has continually denigrated while feeling free to engage in speculations about theological conclusions. Yes, there may be an impact that has to be addressed, but it won’t be addressed by science or the theory of evolution itself, but by theologians and philosophers looking deeply at what things mean and if you can indeed maintain Christianity if you don’t take these stories literally. So, big questions, but Coyne continually talks as if he has the answers to them, and that the answer is that there’s a solid, unresolvable incompatibility there that no amount of theological work will fix. We should do the work first before coming to the conclusion, no?

The second one is worse, because Coyne is concluding for no good reason that the argument is that the Old Testament should be taken metaphorically and the New Testament literally, presumably on the basis that if someone in the Old Testament is to be taken metaphorically it all must be. This is like arguing that because Chalmers’ zombie argument is a thought experiment and not to be taken literally nothing else in “The Conscious Mind” should be taken literally, which is clearly absurd. No one argues that everything in the Old or New Testaments is literally or metaphorical. They have to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis using the proper criteria.

What are those criteria, you ask? Well, one of them is the possibility of it being true if taken literally. Coyne will likely argue that I’ve conceded his point, but I haven’t. If a story or passage can be taken literally, then that means that you can either take it literally or metaphorically; it might be either. But if you discover that it cannot be taken literally, then you cannot take it literally, and so must take it metaphorically. And before Coyne or other atheists roll their eyes or chortle, note that I argue that you are not done at that point. You then have to ask if the passage will still fulfill its purpose if it’s taken metaphorically. If it doesn’t if taken as a metaphor or a parable, then you have to abandon it, and everything that depends on it. This might mean that you then have to abandon, in this case, your religion entirely. If it does, then you can move on with only a few patch-ups. Ultimately, if you discover that it cannot be taken literally, then you have to drop everything that requires that it be taken literally … but that doesn’t necessarily mean everything that depends on it.

Now, I don’t think that we lose anything important by taking the Adam and Eve story as a metaphor as opposed to literally. But I might be wrong about that. There’s a lot of theological work to do to figure this out, and if Coyne and Rosenhouse want to participate I’m willing to go along with it. But only if they’re willing to get into the theological and philosophical trenches and understand how to go about figuring this stuff out. At the end of the day, I might be convinced of their position, but they’ll have to convince me first.


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