This time it’s Joel S. Baden, an Assistant Professor of Old Testament (what a title!) at the Yale Divinity School. Over at PuffHo (the religion section this time), he discusses “The problem of rationalizing the Bible.“
The good part of his piece is his criticism of people who take the Bible literally, especially the “miracles” like Noah’s flood, the parting of the Red Sea, and so on, but then go on to explain these things as natural occurrences. The Red Sea parting, for instance, has been imputed to strong winds, and we’ve seen how BioLogos rationalizes Adam and Eve as not the literal progenitors of humanity, but a God-designated “federal headship” of two chosen among many.
This is the “rationalization” Baden decries:
The problem, however, is that none of these theories about what happened are, in fact, what the Bible says happened. The Bible doesn’t say that a comet struck the ocean, or that there was global warming, or that it was low tide or that the Israelites ate lichen (or worse). It says that there were miracles, originating entirely with God, to punish or protect, to destroy or to save. Miracles cannot, by definition, be natural occurrences, no matter how rare or remarkable.
Okay, but the faithful could still maintain that there are miracles. Baden’s taking the scientific high road here, and simply dismissing the possibility of miracles, as a good Biblical scholar should.
The parsimonious interpretation, given Baden’s respect for science and his status as a Biblical scholar, is that these stories are simply made-up parables that reflect the infancy of our species. But he can’t do that. He has to save God somehow, and he does:
It is not that the Bible reflects the state of knowledge in an earlier, pre-scientific culture, and that we who are more enlightened have the capacity to understand the events in the Bible more accurately. The Bible is not a record of ancient observations; it is a grand theological statement about God’s interaction with humanity and the world. Rationalizing its stories does not “explain” the Bible. Rationalizing, in fact, obscures it.
We cannot have it both ways. The Bible cannot both be a foundation of faith and conform to modern notions of scientific rationality. Nor should it. For true believers, naturalistic rationalizations undercut a central message of the Scriptures, that God intervenes in human affairs. Skeptics must wonder why any attempt is being made in the first place to prove that biblical events really happened. The Bible may be couched as historical narrative, but the claims it makes are claims of faith, which no amount of positive or negative data can alter. . .
Miracles are articles of faith, for true believers today and for the Bible as well. Whether they actually happened or not is debatable. But to chalk them up to freak occurrences of nature is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature both of the Bible and of belief in it.
I find this whole essay confusing. First Baden says that science says miracles don’t happen, and then at the end says that miracles might have happened: they are “debatable.” He doesn’t explain why God couldn’t have used strong winds to part the Red Sea. In that sense, miracles could be natural occurrences, just ones that are extremely improbable, like all the air molecules moving to one side of a room. And those improbabilities could have been the work of God.
Baden draws a distinction between “true believers” and “skeptics” (presumably atheists), appearing to take no position on whether the Bible says anything about God, but then he also claims that the Bible is a record about God’s interaction with humanity and the world.
So I’d like to ask Baden three questions:
1. Do you believe in God? And if so, what evidence do you have for such a being? When I first read the essay I thought he was being an atheistic Biblical scholar (I’ve met some), but his Yale bio says that he’s Jewish.
2. What about the little matter of the NEW Testament? Was Jesus born of a virgin and resurrected? If not, then of course all of Christianity collapses. Or, being a Jew, do you take no position on that issue?
3. You say that the occurrence of miracles is “debatable.” What is your position on this questions, and if you think there’s a case for miracles occurring, what is it?
I dislike scholars and theologians who, rather than saying what they think, tread a fine line to avoid offending anyone. Even the beliefs of theologians like John Haught remain murky—and that, of course, is deliberate.