Putting Words in God’s Mouth

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Published:
December 29, 2022

On November 23, 2022, the Adventist Review published a commentary, written by Clifford Goldstein, titled “How Many Lies?” It begins with the question: “How many lies has God told us in the Bible?” It continues to try and demonstrate that evolution is false. No reference to science is found in the text. This is an apologetic using biblical sources alone. Throughout the piece there is a contrast made between what God is presumed to say and human understanding. For example, in paragraph 2 we find: “If evolution is true, our God lied to us . . .” In paragraph 5: “If this scenario . . . were true, then the Lord amplified the untruth . . . didn’t He?” In paragraph 9: “Could God lie to us . . .?” And the ending assertion (paragraph 12): “It all boils down to one question. What do we believe: God’s Word or humanity’s?”

Strong stuff. And, as this critique will try to demonstrate, seriously flawed. About as problematic as I have ever read in recent years from a traditional Adventist apologist.

But before dealing with the article’s arguments, I feel constrained to address the writer—to disambiguate man from message. Clifford Goldstein is, for many (including myself), a very polarizing author. He writes intensely, with florid prose, in support of Adventist theological positions he strongly believes in. Those positions are indeed considered orthodox, as reflected in the 28 Fundamental Beliefs. And his passion is on full display in this essay. But sincerity is not the issue. Divisiveness is. It would appear that he almost relishes being combative. Yet advocating for one’s views in such a manner can short-circuit legitimate dialog. And presumably, anyone who is a truth-seeker wants to determine if their positions are well-grounded. But it’s hard to get thoughtful feedback when your passion too often triggers angry reactions among readers with contrasting views. Views that, in some cases, are well worth considering. Further, it is tempting, for those who react negatively, to respond with ad hominem attacks. Even if they are merely thoughts and not written in comments. This is unfortunate and divisive.

Thus I wish to separate out the individual from the arguments made in the article I’m reviewing. I don’t doubt Goldstein’s sincerity, however polarizing he may also be. But it’s ultimately about the content, not the author. Indeed, readers really cannot be sure whether either he or I have actually written the material you’re considering here. It could all be generated by artificial intelligence, using some product like ChatGPT. My point is, the person doesn’t ultimately matter. So, let’s now turn to the content of “How Many Lies?”

Human Fallibility

I have three separable concerns to discuss, moving from more general to quite specific. There is also a thread running through all three, thus my issues could be visualized as concentric circles. Think Venn Diagram. Their common link is—human fallibility.

Here’s an assertion that should be both obvious and uncontroversial: all humans are fallible. Consequently, nobody gets everything right all the time. Now here’s a second, equally evident assertion: God is infallible. Thus, God-statements are assured truth. But things quickly get messy. Christians assert that the Bible is inspired, thus it is infused—in some way—by God. Believers disagree somewhat on what such infusion entails. Is it inerrancy? Nonetheless, it is clearly one thing for a message to come from an infallible God and quite another for humans to infallibly interpret that message. Here then is an unbridgeable gap between God’s infallibility and our fallibility. Thus, every theological position mankind has ever taken must necessarily be open to revision, since our conclusions are fallible. This obviously doesn’t mean all human conclusions are false, just that they cannot unassailably be considered as truth.

Two Overlapping Magisteria—Revelation and Science

The term “magisteria” roughly means “teaching authority.” And for the physical world, two authorities began an uneasy coexistence as history moved into modernity: revelation and science. Ultimately, these two magisteria ought to align. But presently there is, at least among many traditionalist Christians, a sharp disconnect. The conservative view holds that the earth was created some 6,000-ish years ago and evolution is false. Science teaches that the earth is ancient (~4.54 billion years old) and current fauna and flora evolved throughout this deep time.

But doesn’t it seem odd that the commentary I’m critiquing here makes no reference whatsoever to science? The point of the essay is to demonstrate that evolution is—necessarily—false. Yet the entire argument is scripture-based alone. Why?

Well, I certainly have no insight into the author’s mind, but I can suggest what I think is the single, central argument used by many who would also argue (albeit likely not explicitly) against evolution (or an ancient earth), without feeling the need to consider science at all. I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I will be as succinct here as possible. The argument runs roughly as follows:

1) God is infallible and only speaks the truth.

2) Humans are fallible, thus they can and do err.

3) The Bible is the “Word of God” and thus contains God-truth.

4) I (the arguer) have read the Bible and, on some particular subject (e.g., origins), I find the Bible to be conclusively aligned with my understanding such that I cannot see how I could be mistaken.

5) Consequently, my understanding is correct.

6) Then, as my understanding is in sync with God’s declarations, I can be certain that I know the truth.

The bumper-sticker shorthand for this is: “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

I trust readers can see that if the above argument holds, any consideration of human-derived understanding, such as science, is quite unnecessary. Because, as noted in steps 1 and 2 above, God-knowledge is certain while human-knowledge is, at best, probabilistic. But the argument does not hold because, in moving through steps 4–6, the argument passes from fallibility to infallibility. The arguer, however, thinks the biblical information is so evident and the inferences unassailable that this move is justified. Now let me pause here to note that the conclusions derived via this argument might indeed be God’s truth. But the argument is trying to guarantee it. It fails because you cannot ever move from human understanding—which is necessarily fallible—to arrive with certainty at God’s understanding. And this in no way negates the inspiration of the source.

But here’s the final and most important takeaway from the failure of this argument. Because there is fallibility in considering each magisteria, you cannot necessarily privilege one over the other when considering the history of physical reality. Humans can just as easily misunderstand revelation as they can physical evidence (via science). One might even argue that there is actually more likelihood of misapplying revelation to physical reality because what one might assume is applicable to the physical world in the revelatory text—might not be. At least in the scientific realm, your purview is confined to the natural world. But if we need to look at both sources of knowledge, we can no longer consider it acceptable—as this essay does—to interpret revelation alone in trying to reach a justifiable conclusion. Further, in investigating the scientific story, if it produces very persuasive (i.e., well-grounded) conclusions, then that ought to force us back to consider, more strongly, whether we have inadvertently misunderstood revelation.

Plain Reading and Modern Eyes

Part of the reason why the argument being pursued in the commentary I’m reviewing may seem persuasive is that:

a) It is the way Christians (and certainly Adventists) historically have understood the Bible (and especially Genesis).

b) The meaning of the words we read register within our modern worldview, and that then undergirds broader, traditional conclusions.

The literalism inferred by the term “plain reading” is evident in paragraphs 3 and 4 of “How Many Lies?” It is what any modern reader would likely conclude when reading without some insight into the—radically different—mindset of the original listeners/readers. But the very idea that there might be some disconnect between how we now read something and the original audience’s conceptual “universe” is a fairly new idea in Christian theological considerations. While research in reconstructing the sociology of the ancient world has been pursued since perhaps the mid-1800s, there are recent and important books that bear on this issue. The two most central and accessible, in my view, are The Lost World of Genesis One and God, Sky & Land. The second one is by Adventist authors Fritz Guy and Brian Bull. Both books have additional follow-on works that should be considered, once the original material is digested. But the essay I’m reviewing argues as if such material didn’t exist. Now it’s possible that the author is unaware of this information. I would be surprised if that’s the case, but the important point is that the presuppositions in “How Many Lies?” do not recognize that an original hearer would react to the Genesis material quite differently from moderns. Bull and Guy state the issue this way:

To really read is to listen, to try to hear what the author wants to say. In the case of ancient documents—especially if, like Genesis, they are so familiar to us that we are quite sure we already know what they say—it is extraordinarily difficult to actually listen to the text. (18–19)

And obviously, we cannot “listen” if we do not have any insight into the worldview of that original audience. This takes the work of trustworthy scholarship to uncover. Which has only recently become more widely accessible to a lay audience. Today it isn’t acceptable, I assert, to draw firm conclusions from Genesis without—at minimum—addressing the original context and trying to replace our “modern eyes” with those of the first recipients. But the commentary I’m reviewing here proceeds as if this problem was nonexistent. Thus the premises being used in “How Many Lies?” should not be uncritically accepted—as we once unquestionably did.

Words in God’s Mouth

The third issue I have with “How Many Lies?” is the essay’s most specific and most serious problem. The apologetics in this commentary is not positioned as being human-derived but rather as if God stated it. The “lies” of the title refer to supposed statements made by God himself. I gave multiple examples in my opening, but consider also paragraph 10, which says: “Scripture tells us that ‘it is impossible for God to lie’ (Hebrews 6:18; see also Titus 1:2). Yet, in a Darwinian world, God started lying to us from the first pages of the Old Testament . . .”

“God started lying . . .” What has been done here is to take human-derived (and thus fallible) doctrinal conclusions and insert God as their spokesperson. This moves the argument from fallible to infallible. And that is a logical leap that is totally unacceptable for any apologist to make. At a minimum, two intertwined fallacies follow from this step: straw man argument and false dilemma.

If you can position your theological case as if God is arguing on your side and man (via science) is on the other, it becomes easy to “beat up” the human “straw man” side. After all, God by definition tells only truth. So who then could possibly defend the error-filled ideas of man? Trouble is, the theology being argued for in this essay is also man-derived. Please note, however, I am not saying the positions proposed in the article under review are wrong. That would need some counterarguments in evaluation. But what is fallacious is to elevate one side to infallibility by using God as your mouthpiece.

The second fallacy (false dilemma) is to collapse the issue into two choices—God vs. man. But when you strip the God-infallibility from one side—as is necessary—then a wider set of theological options should be legitimate possibilities. It is a blatant move here to elevate the author’s preferred theology from Adventist orthodoxy into God’s truth. No fallible human has the necessary certainty to legitimately do this.

Finally

I do not like authoring critiques such as this. No matter how I might wish to disambiguate man from message, the risk of defensiveness, disunity, and demonizing remains. And the most visible example of a contemporary Adventist us-vs.-them mindset is church president Ted Wilson’s exhortations. But Goldstein might run a close second. I know neither of these men, and I do not doubt their sincerity. However, Adventist leadership too often seems to act as if the beliefs they advocate are under siege.

War-like metaphors are endemic in conservative Christianity, more widely than just within Adventism. And the follow-on polarization is profoundly unhelpful. Issues such as age of the earth and evolution, the nature of inspiration, and the context of biblical authorship will not disappear. Adventists, more pervasively each year, are asking legitimate questions that have foundational implications. And reactionary responses from church leadership are merely deflection. What we need instead is even-handed consideration of new ideas, even at the risk of difficult adjustment. This is not to say that some views that so-called Adventist progressives might support are evidently true. But we need dialogue, not demonization. This, in my opinion, will take a serious mindset adjustment by many of our top leaders. Unfortunately, essays like the one being reviewed here give no evidence that this kind of openness is on the horizon.

 


Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is columns editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found by clicking here.

Title illustration by Spectrum. Photo: Adam's Creation, Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo. Photo by Jörg Bittner UnnaCC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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