A friend of ours was chatting about his experience attending membership classes at his church. He mentioned that one part of the statement of faith requires members to affirm that the Genesis story is not to “be accepted allegorically or figuratively.” He did not have a problem with this, but I find it an odd condition for church membership on a number of levels. There are, of course, historical reasons for this restriction in the interest of protecting the integrity of the Bible as God’s infallible revelation. However, because the statement of faith does make it clear that the Bible is God’s infallible word, it seems unhelpful and problematic to demand a particular hermeneutic for a specific passage of Scripture.
To accept these claims about Genesis, the new believer would need to be acquainted with the historical struggle for the integrity of the Bible, as well as an understanding of literary genres. I suspect that the average believer, let alone a new Christian, does not understand the different genres used in the Bible. It seems misplaced to demand that people affirm that a passage of Scripture belongs to a particular genre. The important issue of the integrity of God’s revelation has been obscured by peripheral and unnecessary demands concerning genre.
In his stimulating book, Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns claims that the controversy between theological liberals and conservatives is based on a false dichotomy. The liberal believes that the first chapters of Genesis do not match modern standards for historical writing and, therefore, are not inspired. The conservative believes the Bible is God’s inspired word and, therefore, those chapters must live up to modern standards for historical writing. Enns’ suggestion is that the conservative assumption of inspiration is the correct one, but he questions the assumption of both liberals and conservatives that the genre of modern historical writing should be the standard by which the Bible is viewed. Instead, the Bible needs to be read according to the cultural context within which it was written (p. 49).
Determining the genre of the first chapters of Genesis requires a high level of hermeneutical and exegetical expertise. It is puzzling to me why a church would put such demands on a new Christian seeking baptism and church membership. I do think that a confession of faith is needed for membership, but it should focus on the essentials while allowing for ignorance about peripheral issues.
I am not asking that the Pandora’s box of revising official statements of faith be opened. Instead, I would encourage discernment about the use of those statements when dealing with new believers. I wonder if the reluctance of some to take on church membership is, in part, due to peripheral issues that they do not have the expertise to understand. If people have become excited about following Jesus, a requirement that they subscribe to one side or another in ongoing controversies could act as a (figurative and allegorical) bucket of cold water on their faith.