Creationism: All Luther and Calvin’s fault?

I managed to catch “Did Darwin Kill God” on iPlayer before it disappeared into the digital ether.  One of the members of staff in the Theology Department at Nottingham, Conor Cunningham, presented perhaps the most interesting (to me!) parts of the BBC’s Darwin season. Essentially, Cunningham was arguing for the “no conflict” position – belief in some form of evolution is compatible with the orthodox Christian belief in the Bible as the Word of God. In fact, the programme shared remarkable affinity with the argument of the evangelical scientist Denis Alexander’s recent book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have To Choose?, both even quoting Augustine’s On the Literal Meaning of Genesis. What was especially interesting was how modern the Young-Earth Creationist position is.

However, one thing that stuck out as odd in the programme was how Conor Cunningham introduced the idiosyncratic views of Bishop Ussher with a sideswipe at Protestantism:

“The Reformation saw some Christians reject the authority of the Catholic Church in Rome, embracing instead the Bible as the sole source of authority. Scripture, not the Pope, was now their master. The decision of Luther and Calvin to question Papal authority opened the floodgates for anyone to read the Bible as they wished.”

To be sure, Protestantism’s sola Scriptura has been at least partly responsible for its “genius for fission” (A.E. McGrath) and denominalization. But I doubt either Luther or Calvin would recognize themselves in the description as encouragers of “anyone reading the Bible as they wished”. Such a way of phrasing it implies that the authority lies with the interpreter, not with the Bible. But for Luther and his followers, “Scripture is its own interpreter” (Scriptura ipsius interpres) and questions of interpretation cannot be resolved by an authority above the Bible (since no such authority exists) but by the Bible itself, as J.I. Packer argues:

“Scripture yields two basic principles for its own interpretation. The first is that the proper, natural sense of each passage (i.e., the intended sense of the writer) is to be taken as fundamental; the meaning of texts in their own contexts, and for their original readers, is the necessary starting-point for enquiry into their wider significance… The second basic principle of interpretation is that Scripture must interpret Scripture; the scope and significance of one passage is to be brought out by relating it to others.”

With an issue like Evolution and Genesis 1-2, different interpretations are bound to arise – but the Reformers would insist that any proffered interpretation be subject to the authority of the Bible, and weighed on its intrinsic merits – including its plausibility (“Unless I am convinced by Scripture or by plain reason… I cannot and will not recant” – Luther). This is completely different to the idea that sola Scriptura and private interpretation amount to letting anyone make the Bible say just what they want it to say. Private interpretation of the text does not mean that the reader gets to interpret the Bible however they wish, but that they are to seek out the true meaning whether they like it or not. (In fact, it may well be that the Roman Catholic approach of resolving differences of interpretation by an authoritative judgement by the Church’s magisterial authority is more vulnerable to an accusation of placing the interpreter above the Bible)

Perhaps the problem is that so much of Protestantism believes the myth that private interpretation means exactly what Cunningham suggests it does – and so in practice actually reject the authority not only of the Pope but also of the Bible – the classic error of liberalism.

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