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Malcolm Tolbert
Dr. Malcolm Tolbert




Dr. Tolbert addressed the first Biblical Forum audience in 2004 encouraging healthy faith and intellect.

by Kyle Kelley


Does science and faith collide in the Genesis story? Is the Old Testament God far removed from the loving face revealed in Jesus? These questions and others were addressed in the first annual Stagg-Tolbert Forum for Biblical Studies held October 16 at Broadmoor Baptist Church in Baton Rouge. Dr. Malcolm Tolbert, retired Greek and New Testament professor, missionary, pastor and one of the forum's namesakes, gave the inaugural address of the series. Now 80 years old, Tolbert noted that his "pipes are rusty" and his hearing is not what it was once, but his mind remains sharp and his spirit generous. He spoke with a scholar's brain and a pastor's heart.

Christians can welcome scientific advances and marvel at the complexity of God's creation. Tolbert cited unimaginable recent advances in DNA research as chronicled in the work of Spencer Wells and others. On the Astronomy front he pointed to an article by scientist Robert Roy Britt that reports the recent photograph of a galaxy estimated to be 13 billion light years away. "When you know that in one solar year light travels approximately 5.88 trillion miles and you multiply that number by 13 billion, you get an idea of the immense distance the light has traveled. You also realize that the image photographed shows the galaxy not as it may be today but as it was 13 billion years ago."

As amazing as these discoveries are in answering some of the "how" questions of our mysterious universe, they have little impact on "why" questions. "It is when we come to deal with the ultimate meaning of life that scientists, whether they accept this or not, have no advantage over the rest of us. When it comes to ultimate meanings, all of us, geneticist and fisherman, anthropologist and illiterate, are faced with the necessity of exercising an option." The faith option is personal and is in a different realm than science. Faith is not just the theoretical, but goes to the core of your reality,where you live your life. It was the option Victor Frankl chose even in the midst of horror in a Nazi concentration camp.

Tolbert stated that Frankl realized he could chose how to react to his circumstances and that his spirit could not be enslaved. Being responsible ("response able") even in the worst of situations points to the idea of what it means for humans to be in the image of God as the Genesis writer proclaims.

It is the realm of faith and meaning to which the Genesis writer speaks, not of science and other modern constructs. Tolbert continues, "Divine inspiration, whatever it may mean, does not enable the writers of scripture to rise above what was generally known about their world and their place in it." Pre-modern people including the writer of Genesis "believed the earth was flat and the heavens were above the flat earth...His concept of the size of the world was very narrow, and he was totally ignorant of the people that inhabited lands around the globe. What he did know was very limited, very provincial, and very unscientific. Although Paul's knowledge of the world, informed as it was by the Roman Empire, was greater, the same may also be said of Paul and the writer of the first gospel, as well as the authors of other books of the Bible." Just as modern scientific knowledge does not displace the realm of faith, previous "primitive" understandings of the universe cannot obscure the Reality underneath it all. These truths transcend the historical context and knowledge of that day as well as our own.

A companion point to the understanding of the limits of scientific knowledge, Tolbert states, is the humble recognition that our "knowledge" in general (theological and otherwise) is insufficient to bring us to faith and a meaningful life. "The ability of people to find genuine meaning in their lives is not limited by their lack of knowledge...I have discovered, as you probably have, that the people who seem to know God best and are closest to God are often people whose education has been very limited. Their names come to me even as I write this,my grandmother;...Mrs. Powers...Mrs. Jones [members of churches where he was pastor]. They knew nothing beyond the King James Version of the Bible. They knew nothing of the history of the Jews, nor could they answer the critical introductory questions scholars raise...Their perspective was very similar to that of the author of Genesis...They were totally innocent of any scientific knowledge...Intellectually I knew a great deal more than they. They taught me so much, however, about faith, love and generosity."

The challenge for us modern Christians, as good stewards, is to use to the fullest extent possible our God given intellectual abilities to be able to engage a hurting world. We do that however recognizing simple faith points to the deepest realities. Tolbert concludes, "The author of Genesis was neither a scientist nor a historian. He was a person of faith who had had an experience of God and wrote about his experience in ways that were available to him. Hearing him speak through this book across thousands of years, I have the deep feeling that we are brothers in the faith. I take my stand with he author of Genesis and share the conviction that he expressed when he said, "In the beginning God." Give me that, and I am happy to turn the investigation of this universe over to the scientists. As they describe the emerging universe, however, I am convinced that the shape it takes is the result of the presence of God who is intimately involved in the process."

In understanding Scripture and coming to terms with the meaning of the Old Testament in particular, we are given our best direction in the life and words of Jesus. Tolbert looked at various examples of how Jesus interpreted the law and always moved to the deeper reality behind the law. He cited another writer who stated "I think the love of Jesus is the plumb line by which everything is to be measured. And while laws may be more rigid, love is more demanding, for love insists on motivation and goes between, around and way beyond all laws." Tolbert affirms the New Testament witness that "God's ultimate revelation is Jesus. His life and teachings provide the best perspective for interpreting both the past and the future...Without the Old Testament and its contribution to the message God has given to us we would be sorely handicapped. It can be the word of God to us when we interpret everything it says about God in the light of the fuller understanding of God given to us by Jesus."

In addition to Dr. Tolbert, the forum is named after another Louisiana treasure, the late Dr. Frank Stagg who likewise had a passion for presenting the best in biblical scholarship in a way that was accessible to the layperson. This annual series is dedicated to their legacy.