Near the beginning of his recent The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (24-25) , David Bentley Hart has some fun, as he is wont to do, at the expense of fundamentalists who provide “soft and inviting targets” for new atheist attacks. Fundamentaists like “new earth creationists who believe that the two contradictory cosmogonic myths of the early chapters of Genesis are actually a single documentary account of an event that occurred a little over six millennia ago, and that there really was a Noah who built a giant ark to rescue a compendious menagerie from a universal deluge.” In these Hart finds that “the new atheism has opponents against which it is well matched.”
Despite its claims, Hart argues, fundamentalism was “not a recovery of the Christianity of earlier centuries or of the apostolic church” but a “thoroughly modern phenomenon, a strange and somewhat poignantly pathetic attempt on the part of culturally deracinated Christians, raised without the intellectual or imaginative resources of a living religious civilization, to imitate the evidentiary methods of modern empirical science by taking the Bible as some sort of objective and impeccably consistent digest of historical data.” It is “absurd” to read the Bible this way, and the church fathers never did. Origen though that no one would be so simple to believe that there were “days” before the sun was created, “or that God literally planted an orchard with physical trees whose fruits conferred wisdom or eternal life, or that God liked to amble through his garden in the gloaming,” etc. “No one could doubt . . . that these were figural tales, communicating spiritual mysteries, and certainly not historical records.”
Well now. Where is an unimaginative simpleton like myself to begin?
Let’s begin with the historical claim. Hart is right about Origen. Despite attempts to enlist him among the inerrantists, it is clear enough that he wasn’t in the modern sense. He certainly believed that the Scriptures came from God, but that didn’t mean that they were all factually accurate. In fact, God deliberately planted literal falsehoods in the text to drive readers to seek a different sense. In On First Principles (4.2.9), he writes that God used “historical events that were capable of being accommodated to these mystical events” whenever He could, the “mystical events” being the real concern of Scripture. But when there was no suitable historical event, Scripture “wove” something in that never happened, “either something that could not possibly happen or something that could happen but in fact did not.” Not even the gospels are factually accurate at every point: “They have, woven into the bodily sense, events that never actually happened. Nor do the law and commandments contained therein always manifest that which is reasonable.”
Origen is only one writer, but given his influence on later writers, the fact that he doesn’t accept inerrancy as Evangelicals understand it is an important historical point (as Michael Holmes pointed out in a 1981 JETS article on the subject). Still, it’s questionable whether Origen is entirely representative, or, if he is, the implications are what Hart believes they are.
Not to go too far afield, we can take Augustine as an example - representative enough, and neither modern nor ignorant. In the The City of God (13.21), he observes that “some people refer the whole paradise . . . to intelligible realities.” To which Augustine responds, “to say that there could not have been a corporeal paradise simple because it can also be understood as a spiritual paradise is like saying that Abraham did not have two wives, Hagar and Sarah, who gave him two sons, one by the slave and one by the free woman, simple because the Apostle says that the two covenants were prefigured in them. It is like saying there was no rock from which water flowed when Moses struck it simply because the rock can also be understood to signify Christ in a figurative sense.” Augustine was imaginative enough, apparently, to think about Paradise both literally and figuratively. (As for life-giving physical trees, one wonders what Hart thinks he receives at the Eucharist.)
Augustine also appears to have believed in a real Noah who built a compendious ark. Why else would he worry over the dimensions of the ark and ask whether it was big enough to hold all those animals. People who deny that there was a real ark “are only counting the three hundred cubits of length and the fifty cubits of breadth without taking into account the fact that there is the same amount of space on the next level, and then again on the third level, so that, when those dimensions are multiplied by three, they actually come to 900 cubits by 150 cubits of living space.” Moreover, Moses was educated by Egyptians who loved geometry, so he perhaps had in mind “geometric cubits, one of which is said to equal six of ours.” Given all that, “who does not see how much an ark of that vast size could hold.” Rather damagingly for Hart, Augustine cites Origen as the source of the suggestion that Moses measured the ark in Egyptian cubits (15.27).
Augustine also takes some time to worry about whether insects and rodents were taken on the ark, and wondering how Noah provided food for his floating zoo. Augustine concludes, “Would it be any wonder . . . if Noah, that wise and just man, who was also advised by God on what food was appropriate for which animals, had prepared and stocked a supply of food other than meat that was suitable for each species” (15.27).
Augustine of course knows that the ark is a figure of the church, since “the nations have already filled the Church in the same way that the animals filled the ark; and, in just the same way, the clean and the unclean alike are contained within the framework of its unity until it reaches a certain end” (15.27). And, like the ark, the church requires periodic mucking out.
Finally, Augustine defends Genesis’s account of the longevity of early humans (15.9) and he works through the chronological discrepancies between the LXX and the MT (15.10-14), concluding that “the period from Adam to the flood is reckoned at 2262 years” in the LXX and “at 1656 years” in the Hebrew (15.20).
This doesn’t prove, of course, that Augustine could be a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. It does show that Hart’s scorn for fundamentalists extends further than he intends, and it shows that belief in the factual accuracy of Scripture is not an exclusively modern phenomenon.
This is already too long, but a final thought. Though Hart is right that Origen was not a “fundamentalist,” the kinds of errors and obstacles Origen mentions in On First Principles would make me hesitate before joining forces with him. He says, for instance, that there is no “utility” in many of the bodily regulations of the law, and that this was a signal that they were not to be taken literally but only examined for their spiritual meaning. Genealogies don’t serve any useful purpose either, so they must be some sort of obstacle designed to raise our minds to spiritual things. That’s an awfully risky stance. Mary Douglas, for one, finds a good deal of utility in purity laws, and the genealogies have important literary and theological purposes. The fact that Origen is not imaginative enough to see the point of the literal sense doesn’t mean there isn’t one.