Distinguishing Between History and Theology
Creationism, Biblical Literalism, and History
June 18th, 2012
On May 15th, Gallup completed a poll on American attitudes on the role of divinity in creation. Respondents were asked if they believed deity had no role in human evolution (evolution), a guiding roll in evolution (theistic evolution), or if they believed deity had created humans in pretty much the same form as it is now less than 10,000 years ago (creationism). 46% of the respondents answering accepted the creationism explanation of human evolution. 32% took the theistic evolution position. Only 15% of Americans surveyed believed in straight, no deity, evolution. Demographic data from the poll revealed that more than half of people with a high school diploma or less, and of those who attend religious services regularly believe in Creationism.
I too once believed in Creationism – when I was an evangelical christian attending church weekly. My university explorations of many spiritual traditions paired with my requisite science courses changed that position to “theistic evolution.” But perhaps the greatest influence in my own shift from Biblical Literalism to Biblical Minimalism came during my junior year of university when I took Dr. Stephen Burnett’s “Hebrew Heritage” course.
Hebrew history is one of those areas where the Bible is presumed to be literally authoritative by orthodox Jews and Christians alike and where every word of the Hebrew Bible is traditionally taken at face value. Creationism stems from a literal reading of the Hebrew Bible; the origins of humanity, let alone Hebrews and other Semites, is not really a focus in the “New Testament.” In Dr. Burnett’s class we paired Biblical texts with archaeology and primary source material from adjacent cultures.
History, Dr. Burnett taught, was not the same as religion or theology: documents must be critiqued for their authorship, bias, and collaborative physical evidence (or lack thereof). He asked us, as students of history, to consider who wrote whatever we were looking at, what they did for a living, what their socio-economic backgrounds were, and other details of context. Was this person a priest? A politician? A ruler? Male? Female? What other events were (near) contemporary? What was the world view of this culture?
In asking these questions, we learned how to evaluate primary sources and decide if a source was truly primary (such as a diary entry) or secondary (written about something not personally experienced). Important in evaluating these sources was the addition of collaborating evidence – both archaeological and textual from other sources.
This multi-faceted approach to sources is what defines the historian’s craft from the theologian. Theologians evaluate a holy book based on spiritual, religious, or moral consideration. In theology, the aim is to discover divine intent and moral wisdom. History asks the questions of “what happened, to whom, and how do we know what happened?” History applies the scientific method in evaluating sources, physical evidence, and literature. Biblical Minimalism is a literary and historical approach to the Bible which regards those parts of the Bible that cannot be collaborated by other sources as literary or metaphorical. In other words, not to be taken as literal truth, but more spiritually or psychologically true.
For me, the Bible doesn’t have to be literally true to hold value for our society. Indeed, it can teach us much about how Hebrew culture. Yet in understanding the Bible’s limits, I find myself freed to explore the breadth of knowledge being slowly revealed through archaeology and the lost cultures and ideas concealed beneath the surface of our world. As a scientist, I am thrilled!