Tuesday, August 20, 2019

These Things Happened

Stephen De Young attempts to reconcile myth and history:

“In reality, the Old Testament historical texts are of the genre of mythic history. This term is not an oxymoron as there is no innate contradiction between myth and history. Myth constitutes the story of the spiritual reality which accompanies and underlies events in the material world. Mythic history, therefore, tells the entire story of an event. Myth as such speaks of beings and events in the invisible, spiritual world. History in the modern sense speaks of people and events in the material world. Mythic history explains the union of both and makes the events of history participable through ritual.”

It’s a neat little trick that doesn’t quite work. Or perhaps it’s simply too late.

Points for giving it a shot, though.

Mr. De Young’s definition of “myth” enables him to argue that the Old Testament is both mythical and historical. That’s an appealing feature, to be sure. It’s just not a useful one. It neatly dodges a debate from which Christians who believe all scripture is given by inspiration of God are simply not permitted to politely excuse ourselves. Not if we are clear thinkers.

Where to Draw the Line

We are constantly hearing that significant portions of the Old Testament are “mythical”. Precisely how much is not clear. Some scholars draw the line with Abraham in Genesis 12, designating the Creation account, the Flood and the Tower of Babel, all of which precede Abraham, as “clearly mythical”. Some, like Jordan Peterson, think they perceive mythical elements in the text well into Exodus, suggesting the Law of Moses reflects years of accumulated Middle Eastern wisdom rather than divine revelation.

For others, the entire Old Testament is fair game. One message board commentator says this:
“I would say we start with David being 90% myth and 10% real, and work our way up to Omri being 90% real 10% myth. Pretty much everyone after Solomon can be counted on to be real. However, there’s little doubt that David & Solomon were based on real people. There is some possibility that Moses, Abraham, Aaron, etc., were based on a real person.

I am sure that everyone in the NT is a real person.”
That’s a big chunk of the Old Testament to mythologize — and we haven’t even gotten to the higher critics and their multiple Isaiahs.

“Myth” is the Opposite of What?

So here’s Mr. De Young’s problem. While his definition of “myth” is both historically and technically correct, it is not at all what the Old Testament’s critics and skeptics are trying to tell the world when they use the word. They are contrasting “myth” with “real”. For them, myth is not so much a literary genre presenting the spiritual reality behind history as it is a synonym for “not accurate”. When Mr. De Young tells these folks he too believes the Old Testament contains both myth and history, the only thing they are hearing is that he, like they, believes the Hebrew text is littered with falsehoods, misrepresentations and inaccuracies.

Sure, some of them will agree with Jordan Peterson that despite the “not-historical” nature of these narratives, they do convey loads of useful wisdom and a sort of “truth-in-intention” even if they do not accurately reflect what really happened.

The thing is, the refusal to concede the objective truthfulness of the supernatural accounts in scripture is not at all a modern dilemma. It is not simply a reflection of the fact that our own age is fundamentally materialistic, as Mr. De Young supposes. The same choice to believe or reject the plain evidence of their eyes and ears existed for every person present at every miraculous event that has ever occurred, and this thousands of years before “materialism” was ever a philosophical school of thought. The conflict here is not so much between material and spiritual as it is between faith and unbelief.

Like usual.

Some Said It Had Thundered

Consider the heavenly response to the Lord’s prayer to his Father in John 12:
“Then a voice came from heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered.”
Now, I think we can safely say most people who came to hear Jesus at very least paid lip service to the existence of the supernatural. This was not a crowd made up of dyed-in-the-wool materialists, though perhaps we should make an exception for some of the more prominent Sadducees. Further, everybody present heard exactly the same thing. The Father directly addressed his Son in front of a crowd, and not for the first time.

And what happened? Some people obviously heard God speaking, or else we would not have his words recorded. Others were a little fuzzier about what had just occurred, conjecturing “An angel has spoken to him.” The vast majority, however, heard nothing more supernatural than another peal of thunder. Their senses reprocessed the input they received into something their unbelief was equipped to handle.

These went away unenlightened not because they were insufficiently sophisticated to discern the difference between spiritual reality and how it manifests itself on earth, but because they simply lacked faith.

Rehabilitating Those Poor Old Fundies

In trying to have his cake and eat it too, Mr. De Young has plenty to say about the “excesses and errors” of the evangelical Protestant approach to the Old Testament text, accusing fundamentalists of hyper-literalism, of failing to observe genres in scripture, and of treating their own reconstructions and explanations with a dogmatism that he says should have been reserved for the texts themselves. Some of this is legitimate criticism, to be fair, though it is certainly not true of all literalists — I number myself among them, after all.

But let’s say this for the fundamentalists: they understood the gravity of the dangers inherent in mythologizing the Old Testament in a way the centrists, science fetishists and accommodationists in Christendom do not, and they set about trying to formulate a response to these nonchalant makers of myth when nobody else would. If they were at times imprecise in their correctives, we ought to at least give them credit for sounding the alarm before their fellow believers had gone and ceded the entire Old Testament to its critics.

Three Important Words

When speaking of Israel in the wilderness, Paul says three very important words: These things happened. That is the heart of the matter. If they did not, Paul was deceived, or a deceiver, or both. And if we cannot trust an apostle’s assessment of the veracity of the Old Testament account of Israel’s wanderings and rebellion, then we cannot trust the apostles on anything at all.

So I’m quite happy with Stephen De Young’s description of the Old Testament as mythic history, but only so long as we remember it is every bit as literally historical as some parts of it are stylistically mythological.

These things happened. Believe it or don’t.

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