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A Hard Lesson: Interpretation, Genomic Data, and the Scriptures

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March 8, 2011 Tags: Human Origins
A Hard Lesson: Interpretation, Genomic Data, and the Scriptures

Today's entry was written by Arie Leegwater. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.


Today’s post is adapted from an editorial introducing the September 2010 volume of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF), the peer-reviewed journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA).1 The issue contains several articles of interest to the BioLogos Community, including one by BioLogos Senior Fellow Dennis R. Venema on the evidence from genomics for common ancestry between apes and humans.

Two other papers in the volume, by Calvin College Theologians Daniel C. Harlow and John R. Schneider, examine the historicity of Adam and Eve and original sin. Both authors suggest that the traditional Augustinian understanding of these doctrines must be reexamined in light of the many strands of scientific evidence pointing to the gradual creation of human beings through an evolutionary process.

While there is much food for thought in these two papers, we caution against pronouncing judgment too quickly, either for or against the ideas they contain. Certainly BioLogos supports accepting scientific conclusions where the science is clear. It is clear, for example, that the whole human race did not come from a single ancestral pair. What is not clear, however, is whether acceptance of an evolutionary view of creation requires rejection or substantial revision of these doctrines. (Denis Alexander’s recent BioLogos paper, while not the final word on the matter, demonstrates that historicity may, in fact, be embraced within an evolutionary framework.)

Harlow and Schneider’s papers have caused no little stir in some Reformed circles. Importantly, the question is not whether their ideas are heretical or even whether these doctrines should be open for discussion in the first place. Rather the question is how a given Christian tradition, the Reformed faith in this case, may determine the range of views consistent with its own creeds and confessional statements. As BioLogos is not affiliated with any single Christian tradition, we do not have identical concerns. Our interest is two-fold: we want to protect the integrity of both science and Scripture and create a place for Christians to engage in healthy dialogue on these difficult issues.

Dr. Leegwater’s editorial is important in the conversation for several reasons. First, he humbly admits that in reviewing new data in genomics and evolutionary science, some of his most cherished beliefs were challenged. It is a good reminder that encountering facts that conflict with our deepest beliefs is painful and disorienting, if not downright frightening. We should thus be charitable with those who disagree with us. At the same time, wrestling together is good for the church—iron sharpens iron—and it should not be avoided, for failing to seriously consider new data is not a satisfactory option for truth-seeking Christians. Second, Leegwater recognizes that we tend to oversimplify the issue of interpretation. Too often, he notes, a false dichotomy is presented: “Should science be interpreted by Scripture or Scripture by science?” Neither simple approach gives full integrity to the entirety of God’s Two-Book revelation. Finally, Leegwater observes that we are embedded in a rationalistic Western culture that elevates the methods of science in ways that invite unhelpful responses to Scripture. In reaction to the positivist edicts of science, he says, we tend to reduce Scripture to a collection of infallible intellectual assertions. In doing this we forget the richness of faith, for “faith has to do with promises and expectations, with the certainty of our identity as God-related creatures.”

Introduction written by Kathryn Applegate

Dr. Leegwater's Editorial

On a late April 2010 visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, I viewed a diversity of exhibits, particularly those in the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. To move from panel to panel describing and detailing the evolution of humans from primate forebears to modern humans, one is taken on a journey of over seven million years. This mind-boggling experience, coupled with a recent Science issue detailing the mapping of the Neanderthal genome and its genomic heritage in modern humans, and reading this issue of PSCF, devoted to the historicity of Adam and Eve, genomics, and evolutionary science, challenged some of my long-cherished positions. Such encounters call for a serious examination and reconsideration of certain crucial matters.

Speaking personally, it was a hard lesson to digest, as I suspect it may be for many readers of PSCF. What should we make of all the diverse anthropological evidence collected from several continents as well as the recently acquired detailed genomic data? Should we sweep it under the rug, considering it to be the result of a shameful misguided investigation, since it assumes a view that calls into question the “plain straightforward reading of Scripture”? Or should we dispute the science and suggest the data is open to multiple concordist interpretations? Neither of these positions would be fair to the nature of scientific practice. “Science in God’s world has its own proper task of giving joy, its own peculiar ministry of healing, its own God-given gift of serving up nuanced insight for one’s neighbor” (Calvin Seerveld). Nor would either position honor the role of hermeneutics in interpreting biblical literature.

Parenthetically, as an editor of PSCF, I have often hoped that I could keep these matters at a studied distance, because, in my opinion, there are many other pressing and important issues which the Christian community needs to address and which, due to the ferocity of the debates, frequently become emasculated. And secondly, and for perhaps far too long, a discussion of origins has functioned (for many) as the self-identity or touchstone of the ASA.

But, back to the matter at hand. If we accept the long-drawn-out saga of the evolution of living forms in creation, how must we then understand ourselves? Where and how do we humans “fit” in this development? That question is often the dominant theme in discussions about origins. As someone has perceptively remarked, “It is not the ‘fourth day,’ but rather the ‘sixth day’ that is in question.” To hold that the center and meaning of our life lies outside ourselves may be a posture that many persons and different religions share. But to honor this position as a Christian confession takes one on an eccentric and peculiar journey. In his Institutes, Calvin raised the classic question of human self-understanding, the question of how humans can know themselves. The answer that Calvin gives points us away from our desire to first examine ourselves: “Again it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself” (I.i.12). We, as humans, are essentially God-related creatures (Homo religionis).

While recognizing our human condition, we also need to tread carefully. The intense debates often assume the stage is set by positing “hard scientific data” to be in tension with our (systematic) theologies. In simple terms, the scene is portrayed as a battle between believing science and believing Scrip-ture. Should science be interpreted by Scripture or Scripture by science? We desire simple satisfying answers. To a large extent, however, we have simplified the issues. Putting the matter in this way, I think, will cause us to lose sight of the integrity of both the Bible and of science. If the reliability of the Bible as the Word of God is wedded to its scientific reliability, the “scientific” battles for an infallible Word of God have been lost from the start. We have then placed both on the same (scientific) level, and in the process, we will lose the reliability of the Scriptures. The Scriptures are not written as a historical research report, nor do they give a scientific account. Rather, they are a testimony of faith, albeit in the form of God-inspired literature. The Bible is part of creation which bears witness to the Word of God who was present at Creation. The Bible points us to Christ. The Bible is divinely inspired, but it is not divine. The Holy Scripture in its entirety is revelation, but it is not the whole of revelation. Reducing the Word of God to the Scriptures can be a form of bibliolatry. The revelatory Word of God for creation speaks to its reliability and trustworthiness.

Stating it differently, the Bible speaks in prescientific language and pictures. It employs the language of the day, reflecting the world-picture of the original audience. The language of the Bible is accommodated to the cosmological and historical awareness of the day. In our eyes, these cosmological world-pictures may seem hopelessly scientifically naive, but the Word and Spirit are able—the church confesses—to penetrate our hearts, regardless of our local customs and situations, or of the world-pictures we hold.

In addition, we often discount the philosophical and historical contexts that undergird many of our procedures of interpretation. We live in a westernized rationalist culture which probably reached its zenith in the Enlightenment, but is still clearly regnant in the practice of the natural sciences and the theological sciences. This historical context has shaped our view of the Bible and its interpretation: we like (or deem it necessary) to compare the scientific propositions of science with the propositional revelation (teachings) of Scripture. In an effort to counteract the rational infallibility of scientific propositions, Christians respond with the rational infallibility of revealed propositions. Consequently, employing the term “inerrancy” to describe the character of the Scriptures seems inherently tied to a rationalistic and positivistic position and plays into the hands of higher criticism. Our intellectual instincts tend to treat faith as basically an intellectual matter. But faith is much richer in its purview. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1, RSV). Faith has to do with promises and expectations, with the certainty of our identity as God-related creatures.


1. ASA was established in 1941 as a fellowship of those in science and related disciplines who prize both faithfulness to the Word of God and integrity in science. ASA members benefit from a robust dialogue about wide-ranging and pressing issues in science and faith through multiple blogs, publications like PSCF and the new God and Nature e-zine, and both regional and national events such as the upcoming 66th Annual Meeting, “Science-Faith Synergy: Glorifying God and Serving Humanity.” Interested in connecting with fellow Christians in science? It’s easy to join online.

Arie Leegwater is a professor emeritus of chemistry at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and editor of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. He received his doctorate in chemistry from The Ohio State University, where his thesis was on steric effects in organic chemistry.

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Martin Rizley - #54038

March 11th 2011

Luther’s insistence on a geocentric cosmology was based on a failure to grasp the phenomenlogical nature of the descriptions of nature found in the Bible.  In one sense, he was not wrong to insist that the sun and planets go around the earth, for from a phenomenlogical perspective, as lights in earth’s sky (not as astral bodies in outer space) they do just that.    In what sense, however, could the language of Genesis 1:4 and 5 be a phenomenological description of a geological period made up of countless rotational cycles of light and darkness?     In Genesis 1:8, the statement “And the evening and the morning were the first day.”  comes just after God has divided the light from the darkness and has named them both—“God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night.”  The implication seems to be that the evening of the first day came as the light of the first day faded to darkness.  In other words, the first day of creation had one light period (day) which yielded to one dark period (night); the transition from the one to the other brought about the arrival of the evening, followed by the morning of the second day.   This seems to me to be the most natural reading of the text.   The first day appears to have been composed of one rotational period of light and darkness, followed by five other similar creative periods, before God rested on the seventh day.  I am open to altering my view, if I can be persuaded by good scriptural arguments to see things in a different light.   I refuse to conjecture, however, about how the world came into being based on the autonomous judgments of human reason alone, without any divine revelation to back it up.  I regard the testimony of God to creation as the most reliable source of information we have regarding that great event.       

Gregory - #54043

March 11th 2011

Benoît, with regard to the tone, I think you are mistaken. I fit well within BioLogos’s communicative mission & as a monotheist, you are not facing challenges of attack to your character for your beliefs from me, as you would by others here at your ‘unproved’ assertions. So what I am asking should be easier to hear in ‘tone’, though nonetheless challenging intellectually, which may still make it difficult.

I have respect for you as a dialogue partner, but say to you ‘en guarde!,’ in a friendly way

George & I have conversed many times & spoken, not just at BioLogos. We communicate respectfully of each other, even if we disagree about A&E. The point of FACT in this case is that George rejects the main teachings of the Christian world, as do you if you try to erase the ‘real, history’ of A&E, even if that history is difficult to find & piece together. It does exist. Both Orthodox & Catholic Churches accept ‘real, historical A&E’ (& there are some pretty good biologists & geneticists in those camps too!). It is amazingly ignorant & presumptive of scholars today imo to ‘put all their trust in genetics’ at this stage in the game, as if genetics has much if anything to say about ‘Adam’ & ‘Eve.’

Perhaps you distrust the ‘tone’ because I have asked you specific & challenging questions. You have avoided answering some things twice. So, the problem must of course be my tone, not your position or unwillingness to answer or even just to divert?

I take it that neither you nor Dennis will publically admit you are polygenists, if that is the case. So we are left to guess. & it must be our fault that you will not say?

S’il vous plait, at least address this, Benoît:
“Does D. Venema *anywhere* write that genetics/genomics has *proved* the non-real, historical (nature of) Adam and Eve?”

It should be a simple & painless answer. I’ve asked it twice because you seem to think ‘Yes’ by the way (including the ‘tone’) you argue. Yet I don’t think so & highly doubt Dennis has ever said such a thing. So perhaps you are elevating Dennis to say things he never did & thus distorting your own position based on what Dennis didn’t actually say. If not, then I am sorry for misrepresenting both you & Dennis. I’m genuinely curious about this & would like to know what is happening.


R Hampton - #54065

March 11th 2011

Martin Rizley,

Yes, Genesis tells us the God created light to illuminate the Earth before there was a Sun, and on the following day God created the firmament - which he called Heaven - when he separated the waters and placed it above and below.

I presume you believe this to be literally true and nothing more.

But as Martin Luther said, “Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters… It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night” and later “We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.” (Luther’s Works. Vol. 1. Lectures on Genesis, 1958)

From your understanding of Sola Scriptura, how much of what Martin Luther said is true?

Martin Rizley - #54089

March 11th 2011

Insofar as Martin Luther echoes the language of Scripture, his words are true; but that doesn’t mean that his understanding of the Scripture’s words is without error.  For example, when he speaks of the stars ‘fastened’ to the firmament like globes of fire, he is going beyond the language of Scripture, for the Bible does not speak of God ‘fastening’ the sun, moon, and stars to anything; rather, it speaks of God ‘setting’ or ‘placing’ them in the firmament of the heavens.  There is a difference between ‘fastening’ and ‘setting;‘the word ‘fastening’ views the firmament is of a solid substance, but the word ‘set’ leaves the substance of the firmament ambigous.  People speak of ‘setting’ a toy sailboat on the surface of a pond, but they do not speak of ‘fastening’ it to the surface of the pond.   On the fourth day, God did indeed ‘set’ lights in earth’s sky that were not there before.  If the firmament were merely a solid dome, however, as some assert, then where in Genesis 1 does God created the air or the atmosphere in which the birds can fly?  I may sink a solid dome under the ocean, so that water is below it and above it?   Have I thereby created a space in which the birds may fly?   The creation of the firmament in Genesis 1 involved the creation of an atmosphere or separating expanse, as the result of which some waters remained below the expanse to be gathered in ocean basins and other waters were lifted above the  expanse to come down from there in the form of rain, as Job makes clear (Job 36:26-33).  Notice that Job speaks of God ‘drawing up’ drops of water ‘which the clouds drop down and pour abundantly on man.”  Moreover, this water drawn up from below goes  into God’s “canopy’ above (could this be a reference to the firmament of Genesis 1:6?)   So there is no error here in Genesis 1.  There is simply pre-scientific language to describe the fact that God did indeed separate waters below from waters above—and He did that by creating an ‘expanse’ of undetermined substance which resulted in a space of air between the atmospheric waters and the waters of the ocean basins. 

R Hampton - #54102

March 11th 2011

The Bible clearly states that there is water above the firmament (Heaven) and that lights (the stars, Sun and Moon) were set in the firmament (Heaven). So Genesis teaches that the clouds and rain do not belong the above waters but to those below (after all, rain is essentially evaporated ground & sea water as well as moisture condensed from respiration).

That’s a plain, literal reading, yet some reason you choose to invest the words with another meaning. Seems to me that your application of Sola Scriptura is inconsistent.

Rich - #54110

March 12th 2011

Martin (re 54102):

Now, Martin, perhaps you begin to perceive the problem with your way of reading Genesis.  I have already indicated to you that I have sympathy for your instinctive conservatism, for your sense that religious teaching matters, for your unwillingness to just drop religious teachings whenever modern, middle-class intellectuals start ridiculing them in the name of science and history.  And I’ve criticized R Hampton for his liberal interpretation of Catholicism, in which theology dances to the tune of natural science.

Nonetheless, you see here that I—a conservative—and R Hampton and UC—Catholic liberals—have noticed the same inconsistency in your version of Biblical inerrancy.  I pointed out the problem with your exegesis of the waters above the heavens long ago, on a thread by Pete Enns, but you never responded. 

In fact, the cosmology presupposed in the first chapter of Genesis is simply wrong.  There are no “waters above the firmament”—even if you implausibly interpret the firmament to mean a region of the atmosphere rather than a solid dome.  Since the cosmology is wrong, you have two choices:  (1) The writer gave a wrong cosmology because he accepted the erroneous cosmology of his era; (2) The writer knew that the cosmology was wrong, but thought his story wouldn’t be understood unless he employed that wrong cosmology for the sake of his ignorant audience.

Note that in *neither* case are the religious teachings of the creation and Flood stories endangered.  All you have to understand is that the religious teaching is independent of the views expressed or implied in the stories regarding cosmology and the causes of rain.  All you have to admit is that the Bible could be *flat wrong* about some facts of nature and still *entirely true* in its teaching about God and man’s relationship with God.  But you won’t bite that bullet.  You stick ferociously with your “everyman hermeneutics,” unaware that such a hermeneutics is a post-Enlightenment invention which shares the faulty Enlightenment conception of “truth” as “fact”.  Educated Jewish rabbis scratch their heads in puzzlement at Protestant fundamentalism; it has nothing to do with Genesis as they know it.  You are fighting the wrong battle.  The Bible’s literal description doesn’t need to be defended.  The Bible’s meaning does.

Martin Rizley - #54128

March 12th 2011

Rich and RHampton,
A “post-enlightenment” hermeneutic would insist that there be a scientific exactitude to the descriptions of nature in Genesis 1, which is not what I mean when I speak of a literal interpretation.  Phenomenological descriptions of nature are literal—that is, they describe things literally from the point of view of human observation—though they are by no means scientifically exact.   Calvin in his commentary on Genesis 1 spoke of how Moses was not speaking with the technical language of an astronomer when he described the ‘waters above’ the firmament and the ‘light bearers’ being placed ‘in the firmament,’ but he didn’t reject the literal, phenomenological meaning of the text.   (Read his commentary on this passage).  Nowhere will you find him attribute scientific  ‘error’ to Moses—since it was not Moses’ intention to write a scientifically exact description.  Calvin admits to a certain ‘accomodation’ of Moses’ language to the understanding of his readers, but he doesn’t say that accomodation leads him to teach things that are simply false, writing words that the God of truth cannot claim as His own  (and keep in mind that Calvin was ‘pre-enlightenement’).   Only a rationalistic, post-enlightenment mindset would insist that if Moses speaks of waters being ‘above the heavens,’ they cannot also be ‘in the heavens,’ that is, in an upper region of the atmosphere.  It is a fact that the heavens hold great quantities of water that are suspended above the earth in the clouds and that fall to the earth in the form of rain.  It seems perfectly plausible, therefore, that Genesis 1:6-7 is describing in simple, pre-scientific language, the creation of that vast atmospheric ‘expanse’ by which the waters below (those waters gathered in the ocean basins) were ‘separated’ from the ‘waters above’ (the great, figurative ‘reservoir’ of waters suspended in the heavens above.)  The language is not scientifically exact, but phenomenological and descriptive of a great truth—namely, that God has created a breathable atmosphere and an expanse in which the birds may fly that was not there before—and He dids so by divine fiat.  We see no problem with saying that a plane has risen ‘above the clouds’ when in fact in may be in a region ‘surrounded by clouds’ or even ‘under the (highest) clouds.’  So I see no problem in seeing the ‘waters above’ as being ‘above the firmament,’ yet in another sense, ‘in the firmament’ (in an upper region of the expanse).   Only if one is making an a priori assumption that firmament MUST mean ‘solid dome’ is that interpretation ‘impossible.’  I would also recommend G. K. Beale’s two chapters on Old Testament cosmology in his work “The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism” to see supporting research on this thesis, as well as another possible, theological interpretation of the firmament related to the image of creation as a ‘temple’ created by God. 

Martin Rizley - #54130

March 12th 2011

Rich and RHampton,
One problem with the firmament as solid dome view—apart from the fact that it was by no means universal in the ancient world (Egyptian pictures show the sky God Nut stretching out across the heavens to form the ‘element’ in which the stars are placed—and no one would regard Nut as a solid dome!)—is the fact that ancient astronomers were aware of five visible light sources that moved at different rates and sometimes in different directions.  To accomodate this complex motion, each light source would have to be embedded in its own solid dome, each with independent rates of rotation, if the ancients thought of celestials objects as fixed in a solid firmament.  The biblical text says nothing about the durability or permeability of the expanse God created, or the material out of which it was made, whether it was spongy, pourous, watery, airy, metallic, etc.  It simply says that God created a ‘spread out expanse’ to separate waters from waters—nothing more.  Anything else is ‘read into’ the text and ignores the simple, pre-scientific phenomenological nature of the language.    

Rich - #54148

March 12th 2011


Your reading of Genesis is just not tenable.  First of all, the Hebrew language is capable of distinguishing clearly between “in” and “above,” and there is no reason to assume that the distinction is not maintained in the Genesis story.  Second, the Flood story makes it clear that the firmament, whatever it is, is “solid” enough that the water has to come through “windows” which open, which blows away your “expanse of atmosphere” theory.  The literal picture of how rain occurs is simply wrong.  

And no, my complaint is not coming from a post-Enlightenment mentality.  I am not arguing that because Genesis offers a factually wrong picture of the cosmos and of how rain falls, that the teaching of Genesis is nonsense.  Quite the opposite; I’m arguing that even though “Moses” was completely deluded about how rain fell and what the cosmos really looked like, it makes no difference.  The point of the story is not to explain the mechanism of rain.  It is enough to understand the destructive potential of unlimited water.  Only someone who thought that the Bible had to be completely correct in its “facts” would panic at the thought that there might be errors, and try to rescue it from error by sophistries about “in” meaning the same as “above” and so on.

Once one is liberated from the modern presupposition that “true” means “factually correct” (an equation shared by atheists and fundamentalists), one can begin to appreciate the Bible’s teaching.  Until then, one is trapped in useless apologetics, defending things it isn’t important to defend.  90% of fundamentalist literature is a complete waste of human time and effort, because it is trying to defend things it isn’t important to defend.  Jesus didn’t waste his time trying to prove the historical or scientific accuracy of anything.  He drew out the teaching of the stories.  This is where both the atheists and the Ken Hams of the world entirely miss the point.  R Hampton is wrong about many things, but he’s bang-on about that.

Gregory - #54149

March 12th 2011

Martin, it’s been awhile since I commented on one of your discussions. In this case I agree with Rich and R Hampton. Have you ever thought of trying to ‘go orthodox’ for a change, which might cure you of some of these fundamentalist tendencies within your local variety of evangelical Christianity? It seems you need some kind of shake-up, to really help push yourself away from the YEC label, which you have said you do not hold, yet seemingly do not wish either to completely disavow. It must surely be the hardest while living in a fundamentalist social-church environment to one day finally turn the table & express + support for the overwhelming scientific evidence for an ‘old’ Earth.

Martin Rizley - #54162

March 12th 2011

Rich and Gregory,
Do you really believe that the Hebrews believe God cranked open literal windows in the hard dome sky to let water through the upper sea?   What about the meaning of Psalm 104:3-4—did the psalmist believe that God literally laid down material beams in His material throne room in the sky—perhaps of marble or granite or wood?   Did they believe that the God whose presence cannot be contained by heaven and earth really makes the clouds His literal chariots to go on a joy ride across the sky?  Did Isaiah believe that God ‘sits’ on a material throne above the circle of the earth?  Or that He has literally measured the waters in the hollow of His material hand or caculated all the dust of the earth in a material measure or weighed the mountains in material scales?  Frankly, I think the ancient prophets would be appalled at the hyper-literal manner in which some modern scholars interpret their words—as if the ancients were incapable of poetic, metaphorical, and figurative speech.   I know the ideas of Paul Seely and Dennis Lamoureaux have gained much traction in some scholarly circle, but they have not gone unchallenged.  I suggest you read the book by G. K. Beale I mentioned above, esp., His chapters on Old Testament cosmology.   Moreover, if the accuracy of the Bible in all that it teaches is not important, how do you decide how much of the Bible is to be regarded as ‘uninspired’ and possibly even ‘sinister’ in its teaching? On what basis can you then oppose the views of Scripture, Christ and hell expressed by Gretta Vosper in the following article—  http://progressivechristianity.ca/prc/?page_id=442 —as heretical and “not according to Christ”?

Rich - #54165

March 12th 2011

Martin Rizley:

Ahhh, so now you are suggesting that the language of windows in the heavens was not meant by the Genesis author historically?  That the author just meant:  “God let loose a roaring big pile of rain?”  Oh, I could go along with that as a possible interpretation, with no problem.  But I thought you argued that Genesis 1-11, unlike the more “poetic” parts of the Bible, was meant to be taken historically.  I thought you insisted on the years given in the genealogies, an actual global Flood in 3000 B.C., an actual conversation with a serpent, etc.  I thought that this was all part of the “plain sense” of the text.  So why aren’t the windows in the heavens part of the plain sense as well?  Just because they “strike” you as not meant literally?  Well, the six days, the serpent, the magic trees and the flaming cherubim “strike” me as not meant literally, either.

And if you’re loosey-goosey about windows in the heavens, then why not be loosey-goosey about waters above the firmament?  You seem to be saying now that the writer *didn’t* mean it factually when he talked about windows, but *did* mean it factually when he talked about waters above the heavens (albeit you think “above” means something rather peculiar).  Why have you written so many thousand words here defending the waters “above” the heavens, while you are willing drop the windows at my first complaint?  Could it be because, if the windows are taken literally, we have the “hard dome” model, and you find that inconvenient for your interpretation of the “expanse” as just a region of the atmosphere?  Could it be that, if the windows are taken literally, the Bible would be guilty of a cosmographical error, and your *a priori* rule is that the Bible can’t be guilty of error?  So that you don’t really judge “poetic” usage by any genuine literary criteria, but according to what it takes to ensure the Bible is never false?

Your hermeneutical principles seem very unevenly applied, and applied in the service of your inerrantist theology, rather than out of any genuine interest in learning how the ancient Hebrew writer thought and expressed himself.  If you are going to be a literalist, then be one.  But don’t abandon literalism whenever it suits your argument.  If you stick with literalism all through Genesis 1-11 it’s easy to show that this will land you in a morass of contradictions.  But if you jump in and out of literalism, you can avoid any contradiction when the going gets rough. 

Martin Rizley - #54173

March 12th 2011

You say that my hermeneutical principles seem very unevenly applied.  By what principles do you distinguish what is to be taken literally in Scripture from what is to be taken figuratively? My basic hermeneutic is to try to determine from contextual clues how the biblical author intends for his words to be interpreted—whether he wants the reader to take them literally or figuratively.   One clue that suggests to my mind that the phrase ‘windows of heaven’ is intended as a metaphorical expression denoting outpoured abundance rather than a literal description of concrete, measurable holes in the solid dome sky, is the way that the expression always seems to be associated with the idea of abundance.   When there is a slight shower or sprinkle, the Bible nowhere seems to associate that with the opening of heaven’s windows.   When there is a huge abundance of rain, however, as at the time of the flood, then God is said to open the ‘windows of heaven,’ for rain then flooded the earth as light floods a dark room when the windows are thrown wide open.   However, water is not the only thing that comes gushing through heaven’s windows—so does God’s torrential judgment (Isaiah 24:18), as well as His outpoured blessing so abundant that men do not have room for it (Malachi 3:11).   It seems to me that this consistent picture of outpoured abundance associated with the opening of heaven’s windows ought to make people wonder if we are dealing here with a prosaic, literal description of portholes or a vivid poetic image that is not intended to teach necessarily a particular physical cosmology.  By contrast, however, the details in the Genesis narrative, and the genealogies which frame that narrative (together with the way the NT writers treat events like the fall of Adam and the creation of Eve as literal, historical events) suggests that we are dealing here with something other than an ANE creation myth.  I am still wanting to know by what criteria a person who denies plenary verbal inspiration of the Bible can oppose Gretta Vosper’s attacks on the Bible’s theology,  Jesus’ deity, and His authoritative teachings on divine judgment in the article I cited above—http://progressivechristianity.ca/prc/?page_id=442

Rich - #54181

March 12th 2011

Martin (54173):

Well now, Martin, I’ve debated with many an inerrantist, and they often tell me that the same Biblical passage can have both symbolic meaning and historical meaning.  So when I point out the obvious literary structure of Genesis 1, and raise the question whether the days are meant to be taken literally, the usual answer I get is that both the literary and the historical interpretation are true; God did things so that they not only happened in six literal days, but made for a brilliant literary pattern.  He did the same thing, I’ve been told, with the events narrated in the Flood; orchestrated his own actions, and the actions of all the players, so that they would form a nice chiastic pattern when the story was put down in writing, for the aesthetic delight of the reader.  (That’s realistic; after all, doesn’t *everyone*‘s life take place in chiastic patterns?)  So why couldn’t God have literally opened the windows of heaven, an actual historical action that also recalls (or provides the basis of) such metaphoric uses as you describe from elsewhere in the Bible?  That would consistent with inerrantist, YEC hermeneutic, wouldn’t it?

As for the details in Genesis sounding generally historical, well, let’s see.  “Adam” means “Man”.  Would “Duhhh” be too vulgar here?  And Eve’s name is glossed as “mother of all living”.  Yep, that sounds like another genuine historical name to me.  Would you name your son and daughter “Man” and “Mother of All Living”?  Next thing you will be telling me that Prometheus (“Forethought”) was intended as a historical character.  (And his son was also involved in a Flood, and he’s given a precise genealogy, so I guess he must be.)  And the crafty serpent?  No mythological motif there, nope, not a bit of it.  And a tree of life and a tree of knowledge of good and evil?  Sounds like something out of the writings of Winston Churchill or the autobiography of Ben Franklin for sure.  Sons of God and daughters of men?  Sounds like the parents of the heroic figures in Homer, who, as we all know, are soundly historical, every story narrated about them being entirely accurate, since we’ve found the cities where Agamemnon and Priam are supposed to have lived.  Sure, Martin, your evidence is conclusive, and Genesis 1-11 was meant to be read literally.  (Except for that inconvenient bit about the windows of the heavens.)

I’ve never heard of Gretta Vosper, and I’m not sure I want to know who she is, but out of curiosity, Martin, what was the last Jewish commentary on Genesis that you read?  What did it say about the historicity of Genesis 1-11?

Martin Rizley - #54194

March 13th 2011

In biblical times, all names had a meaning.  The name Jesus means “the Lord is salvation” and it was given to Jesus because He is the one and only Savior.  Should I believe that the character of Jesus is “made up” because no real person whose calling is to be the Savior would be given “the Lord is salvation” for a name?  The fact is, many names in biblical times were prophetic of the role people would fulfill—Noah was given the name ‘Rest,’ because it was through him that the cursed creation would first be given rest, as those in the ark were delivered through the flood into God’s “new creation.”  Moreover, through Noah, the great Rest Giver would come.  So should I believe he didn’t exist becaused his name was prophetic?  So I don’t really see your point about names.  What’s so unusual about the first man being called “Man,” especially since he was appointed by as the ‘representative’ man.  What’s so unusual about the first women being called Eve, since she would indeed fulfill the role of being “the mother of all living.”   Seems pretty logical to me, in fact.    I have not read a Jewish commentary on Genesis that I can remember, nor a Unitarian commentary, nor a Jehovah’s Witness commentary, nor a Mormon commentary.  There is a lot I might like to read that I simply don’t have the time to read, so I tend to limit my reading of commentaries to those I use in preparing my Sunday sermons, which are generally written by Christian believers.   I noticed that you haven’t answered my question about how someone who denies the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture would defend the Bible’s theology against naysayers who attack, for example, the deity of Christ, or Christ’s teaching on judgment and hell.  If the Bible is not authortative in all that it teaches, what leg does a person have to stand on in opposing heresy.  Or do you believe there is such a thing as heresy? 

Rich - #54199

March 13th 2011

Martin (54194):

In addition to your politeness, and your moral and religious earnestness, and your courage in opposing “consensus” modern beliefs where skepticism is warranted, I appreciate your honesty.  You do not bluff about your knowledge, as many on the internet do.  You frankly admit that you don’t remember reading any Jewish commentaries.  Thank you.

I highly recommend that you do read some Jewish commentaries, modern and, if you can get hold of them, medieval ones.  Many are available in English translation.  I say this not to belittle your learning in Calvin, Luther, and other Protestant writers; you will find that your Christianity will be enriched by an encounter with what the Jews say about their holy writings.  As I mentioned before, I had a number of teachers who were Jews or had been taught by Jews, and I never read the Old Testament in the same way after those encounters.  It now seems to me a much richer book than it did when I read it solely through traditional Christian lenses.
Yes, I’m aware of the significance of names in the Bible.  But the first man could have been meaningfully named many other things.  He could have been named “bearded one,” or he could have been named “disloyal” (anticipating his failure to obey the commandment), or “sweaty” (with reference to his coming labors), or “dying one” (with reference to his eventual mortality), or many other things.  The narrator chooses to call him “Man.”  This is exactly what we would expect if the story is about Everyman, i.e., if the story is mythical.

In any case, even if I give you the names of Adam and Eve, the overall atmosphere of the Eden story is unmistakably mythical.  This does not negate the reality of some primal event, some rupture between Man and God.  In all serious religious traditions, myth means not fiction or falsehood, but a higher kind of truth told in narrative form.  The Fall is real, but that does not mean that there was a guy named Adam who ate a pomegranate from a magic tree, or a gal named Eve who talked to a snake.  As the Catholic catechism says, much of the language may be figurative rather than literally descriptive.  (continued)

Rich - #54200

March 13th 2011

Martin (continued from above):

As for your other questions, I’ve answered most of them, in some form, many times before.  “Inspired” doesn’t for me mean “inerrant,” or, if it does, the inerrancy is limited to inerrancy in essential teaching, not items such as the ages of the patriarchs, etc.  I have a much narrower range of teachings that I consider essential than you do.  The length of the days of creation and the historicity of the Flood narrative are not among them.  And if you look at the Creeds, not only is most of Genesis 1-11 not even touched on, how much of the allegedly central Fall do you find in them?  It’s only alluded to indirectly at best. 

I’m not denying the truth of what’s been called “the Fall”—a rupture between Man and God with consequences (suffering and death).  I’m not even denying the existence of a real human couple that I’ll gladly call Adam and Eve, in line with convention.  But “historical” is a misnomer here, because history proper refers to records of the past, and we do not have any “record” of Adam and Eve; we have only a story, which in terms of literary genre is properly classified as myth.  We know nothing of the couple except what is filtered through the myth.

As for Paul’s reading of the Fall story, I’m inclined to think that Paul was offering the very few remarks he did offer (a negligible fraction of the New Testament) as a sort of tentative rabbinic speculation, for local teaching purposes, and that the Church, in its usual blundering misunderstanding of Hebraic patterns of thought, erected Paul’s idea into dogma.  I think that was a mistake.  I think the Incarnation can be understood as something other than a juridical device to cope with “sin,” and I think Western, Latin Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, took the wrong turn on that question.  I’m more and more interested in the Orthodox tradition.

Heresy?  Of course it exists.  It’s defined institutionally.  Heresy is the picking and choosing, the overemphasis on one doctrine (e.g., Christ’s divinity) at the expense of another (e.g., Christ’s humanity), by private individuals or groups within the Church.  The result is “unorthodoxy,” literally “not right opinion”—where “not right opinion” is defined by the body that’s declaring the heresy.  It’s a political term which presupposes collective Church authority over doctrine.  In a sectarian Protestant setting, the terms “orthodox” and “heretical” make no sense at all, because the premise on which they are based is denied by the sola scriptura position of the sectarians.  You can’t have a “right view” when every believer is answerable only to God and his own conscience.  You can only have a predominant opinion and various minority opinions—a near-anarchy of incompatible interpretations of the Bible.

Martin Rizley - #54220

March 13th 2011

“It seems you need some kind of shake-up, to really help push yourself away from the YEC label, which you have said you do not hold, yet seemingly do not wish either to completely disavow.”   Although it is true that many on this website refer to me as a YEC, I have never claimed that label for myself, for the simple reason that I have never held the view of many YEC’s that creation in six days MUST mean creation in 6 x 24 hours.  I have no idea, for example, how long the original period of darkness lasted before God said “Let there be light.”  I see nothing in Scripture to eliminate the possibility that the earth could have “sat there” in darkness for a long, long time, before God began the work of ‘forming’ the earth.   Nor do I know how anyone can be sure about the duration of days that are not ‘‘ruled’ by the sun, whose source of light remains a complete mystery to us.   What I see in the text are not six 24 hour days, necessarily, but six days that are “24 hour-like,” in that each day involves one complete rotational cycle of light and darkness.  Each day is composed of a day and a night, with a morning and an evening.  That is how I understand the text presently.   But I am NOT saying that anyone who disagrees with that understanding is a heretic or is denying the authority of Scripture.  I have great respect for many Christian theologians who hold to the day-age view.  What is of greater concern to me than how one views the days of creation is how one views the authority of Scripture.  What disturbs me greatly is not when someone’s interpretation of Scripture differs from my own, but when someone’s view of Scriptural authority leaves them feeling free to accept only so much of Scripture as agrees with their autonomous reason, and to reject the rest.  I have trouble with someone saying, “Paul taught this, Jesus taught that.  But I believe something else, and my view of the matter is just as valid as theirs.”  B. B. Warfield, who held old earth views, would never have spoken that way.  He did not feel at liberty to ‘reject’ any teaching of the Bible, because he held to its plenary inspiration and inerrancy. He believed that every word was breathed out by the Holy Spirit and had to be taken seriously, because they were all “God’s words.” For me the main issue is how we are to approach the Scripture.  I agree with Herbert Carson when he writes that the believer must “constantly be on his guard lest he come to the study of revelation, not as a believer, but as a humanist.  This does not mean that he should come with a blind unreasoning faith.  But it does mean that, instead of bringing philosophical presuppositions which will color his study of Scripture, and so prejudice his interpretation, he comes as one conscious of the finiteness of his intellect, and aware that his mind also is affected by his sinful nature.  Thus he is willing to be taught by the Holy Spirit, and acknowledges that it is the Word of God, rather than his own reason which is the final arbiter of truth.”

penman - #54287

March 14th 2011

Martin Rizley #53919

“Something more than human reason is needed to be ‘fully persuaded’
that God really is saying what He seems to be saying in Scripture… If you don’t admit this, then you are
placing the proper understanding of Scripture fully within the
intellectual capacities of the natural man and his rational faculties,
which directly contradicts 1 Corinthians 2:14-16.”

Alas for my godless hermeneutics.

I’m not a rationalist, Martin. But I still don’t understand your view of the Spirit’s illumination. I see no reason to think that He directly grants the correct understanding of a specific text. How would you know that such a thing had happened? And if it did happen, there’s the end of all discussion. You KNOW what that text means because the Spirit has told you.

My view of the Spirit’s illumination is that it terminates on something other than the grammatico-historical meaning of specific texts. I think it does two things:

1 - It impresses on us an overall sense of the “divinity” of scripture - that we are here dealing with divine revelation, rather than merely or solely human writings. It gives a heavenly savour, a fragrance, to scripture (or enables us to feel it).

2 - It brings home to us the reality of Christ as God incarnate, as scripture bears witness to Him: not a matter of collecting texts, but the cumulative impact which the person of Christ makes on the heart.

I stand under correction, but I thought my view, not yours, was the historic Protestant view.

Martin Rizley - #54297

March 14th 2011

As I read Paul, the illuminating work of the Spirit terminates on what Paul calls “the things of the Spirit of God,” which I take to mean things relating to who God is (His divine character and attributes and the fact that He really does exist), as well as His divine, supernatural works in the realm of creation, providence, and redemption which are recorded in Scripture (such works as Christ’s virginal birth, His miracles, His atoning death, resurrection, and ascension, to name just a few).  The natural man “chokes” on these recorded miracles in Scripture, and others like them, because in his heart, he does not really bellieve in the God of Scripture— He simply does not share the faith of Jesus or His apostles.  He cannot, therefore, as long as his mind remains captive to an unregenerate nature, acknowledge or receive as literally true any of the truly miraculous works of God recorded in Scripture (though he may have some admiration for the ‘ethical teachings’ of Jesus, as did Thomas Jefferson).  The supernatural works of God recorded in Scripture appear as ‘foolishness’ to him, because they require a spiritual mind (what Paul calls “the mind of Christ”) to properly evaluate and receive.   The natural man can only understand things which are natural—for example, the ordinary operations of the natural world, and his own rational extrapolations from these.   He cannot believe in anything for the simple reason that God has revealed it in Scripture.  Everything has to pass through the grid of the naturalistic philosophical assumptions which he imposes on his reading of Scripture.  In other words, what I am saying is that divine illumination terminates on a plural reality (the ‘things of the Spirit of God’— which includes the specific creative, providential and redemptive works of God divinely revealed works in Scripture), not merely on  the singular reality of Christ’s deity or the overall divinity of Scripture.  I say that because Paul says that the very purpose of this divine illumination is so that we may “understand what God has freely given us” (1 Cor. 2:12).  In other words, the result of this illumination is a mind filled with understanding—not of one thing only, but of various “things”—the “things which God has freely given us,” also referred to as “spiritual truths taught in spiritual words” (v. 13) and “all things” (v. 15).  In other words, there are a host of specific truths that we could never understand or receive apart from the Spirit’s illumination, because of the natural enmity of our carnal minds against God—our deep-seated unwillingness to submit our autonomous judgement about “things” to the overruling judgment of His “law” (the Scripture—Romans 8:7).    Thus, when a theologian like Rudolf Bultmann says that anyone who turns on a light switch cannot believe that men rise bodily from the dead, he is speaking like a natural man, out of the carnal understanding of a mind which is only capable of discerning that which is ‘natural’ and not ‘the things which are of the Spirit of God.’  With a such a statement, Bultmann is rejecting the full-blown supernaturalism that is intrinsic to  belief in the REALITY of the God of Scripture, who raised Jesus from the dead.  He is showing that He is no more a Christian than a deist, agnostic, or atheist. 

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