GRTS' Dr. John Hilber Commences Innovative Research

By Andrew Kischner on November 30, 2016

During his sabbatical, Dr. John Hilber, who teaches Old Testament here at GRTS, has been selected to participate in the Creation Project at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School's Carl F. Henry Center for Theological Understanding. We were delighted when Dr. Hilber agreed to share his experience with the Project thus far.

AK: What drew you to the Creation Project, and what makes the Henry Center a conducive environment for this type of research?

JH: Ever since undertaking my B.S. in geology at the University of Washington, the relationship between Bible and science has been an interest of mine. When I heard about the project, which coincided with my upcoming sabbatical, it was a wonderful opportunity to engage this topic. The Henry Center's project has provided a living and research environment unencumbered by normal academic responsibilities. It is a "fellowship" in the true sense of the word in that I am in residence with several other colleagues working together on the interface of Bible and science. The mutual encouragement and daily interaction have been so valuable.

AK: The doctrine of creation is a heated subject in the academy and in churches. As both a former pastor and now a full-time scholar, what does it mean for you to enter this conversation at this moment?

JH: To be quite frank, it is intimidating. The evangelical culture surrounding this topic has changed dramatically in my lifetime. Certain viewpoints that 35 to 150 years ago were acceptable options for evangelicals are now litmus tests for heresy. Like many issues in our North American culture, the conversation about Bible and science is marred by lack of depth and nuance, by both Christians and atheists. This is a complex issue that has been reduced in popular thinking to slogans and overly simplistic models.

AK: Your research focus requires attention to multiple disciplines and topics (hermeneutics, the relationship of Genesis 1 to the OT, multiple scientific disciplines, the cultural backgrounds of ancient communicators, etc.!). How are you managing and approaching these intersections?

JH: As with any research project, it is important to narrow the scope of investigation. I am tackling one aspect of the problem using a linguistic theory that to my knowledge has not yet been applied. But it is also important to keep in mind the "big picture." One has a mental map of how the research question relates to the broader topic, so from time to time I look more broadly, especially in conversation with other scholars, to ask how my thinking relates to larger questions, and I make revisions as necessary in the light of this bigger context. In technical terms, the approach is neither inductive nor deductive, rather "abductive," that is, a process of circling back and forth between the details and the big picture.

AK: After two months of research and collaboration, what are some of your initial reflections on your research?

JH: The problem I am tackling is how an author's words interact with the broader context–what linguists call the "cognitive environment." Everyone, on all sides of this conversation, accepts that the Bible must be understood in its context, biblical and extra-biblical. But exactly how this happens in real communication has not been discussed carefully enough. The theory I am applying asks more precise questions about an author's and audience's background assumptions and how these play a role in interpretation. One important aspect of this is the notion of "divine accommodation," where the language of Scripture conveys truth, yet in terms that are understandable to an ancient, pre-scientific culture. An example is Samuel coming up out of the earth from the realm of the dead (1 Samuel 28:13). The bottom line is discerning what assumptions about the physical earth the author intends to be necessary for the meaning. The response of my colleagues has been encouraging, and I recently presented my work at the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

Learn More

We'll have an opportunity to follow up with Dr. Hilber near the end of his research sabbatical, where he'll share some conclusions and implications for Christian life and practice.

Editor's note: this follow up post is now available here.

Categories: Interviews, Theology