How Should We Understand the Bible?
The issue at stake in the Galileo controversy is, of course, how the Bible should be interpreted. So let us think about some general principles of interpretation before we apply them to the moving-earth controversy.
The first obvious, yet important thing to say about the Bible is that it is literature. In fact, it is a whole library of books: some of them history, some poetry, some in the form of letters, and so on, very different in content and style. In approaching literature in general, the first question to ask is, how does the author who wrote it wish it to be understood? For instance, the author of a mathematics textbook does not intend it to be understood as poetry; Shakespeare does not intend us to understand his plays as exact history, and so on.
Next, one should in the first instance be guided by the natural understanding of a passage, sentence, word, or phrase in its context, historically, culturally, and linguistically. The Reformers emphasized this in their reaction against the kind of interpretation that (to cite an ancient example) took the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 2—the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates—to represent the body, soul, spirit, and mind, respectively. By contrast with this “allegorical” method of interpretation, the Reformers adopted an approach described by the Oxford English Dictionary in its definition of literal: “that sense or interpretation (of a text) which is obtained by taking its words in their natural or customary meaning, and applying the ordinary rules of grammar; opposed to mystical, allegorical, etc.,” and “hence, by extension, … the primary sense of a word, or … the sense expressed by the actual wording of a passage, as distinguished from any metaphorical or merely suggested meaning.”1 Of course, there is nothing new in this way of understanding literature: it is what all of us use every day in our reading and conversation, without even thinking about it.
The importance of considering the natural understanding of a passage is clear, when it comes to the basic teaching of the Christian faith. The crucial thing about Christianity’s fundamental doctrines is that they are first and foremost to be understood in their natural, primary sense. The cross of Christ is not a metaphor. It involved an actual death. The resurrection is not an allegory. It was a physical event: a “standing up again”2 of a body that had died.
But this basic principle needs to be qualified. For instance, when we are dealing with a text that was produced in a culture distant from our own both in time and in geography, what we think the natural meaning is may not have been the natural meaning for those to whom the text was originally addressed. We shall consider this issue in due course.
At this stage we make a few general remarks about the way in which we use language. Some of us will be familiar with what I am about to say, but many of us may not have thought much about how we use language—we are too busy using it to bother. However, it will help us greatly if we spend just a little time thinking about this matter.
Firstly, there can be more than one natural reading of a word or phrase. For example, in Genesis 1 there are several instances of this. The word “earth” is first used for the planet, and then a little later for the dry land as distinct from the sea. Both times the word earth is clearly meant literally, but the two meanings are different, as is clear from their context.
Next, in many places a literal understanding will not work. Let’s take first an example from everyday speech. We all understand what a person means when they say, “The car was flying down the road.” The car and the road are very literal, but “flying” is a metaphor. However, we also are well aware that the metaphor “flying” stands for something very real that could be expressed more literally as “driving fast.” Just because a sentence contains a metaphor, it doesn’t mean that it is not referring to something real.
For a biblical example, take Jesus’ statement, “I am the door” (John 10:9). It is clearly not meant to be understood in the primary, literal sense of a door made of wood. It is meant metaphorically. But notice again that the metaphor stands for something real: Jesus is a real doorway into an actual, and therefore very literal, experience of salvation and eternal life. We should also note that the reason why we do not take this statement literally has to do with our experience of the world. We know about doors, and our experience of them helps us decide that Jesus is using a metaphor. We shall return to this point later.
Furthermore, it is impossible, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, to speak of things beyond our immediate senses without using metaphor. Scientists, therefore, use metaphor all the time. They talk about light particles and wave packets of energy; but they don’t intend you to imagine light as literal tiny balls, or energy as literal waves on the sea. Yet in each case the metaphor is describing something real—literal, if you like—at a higher level.
To make things more complicated, but also more interesting, sometimes both a primary and a metaphorical sense can occur together. Take the ascension of Christ, for example. In its primary sense it refers to the literal, vertical ascent of Jesus into the sky that was physically observed by the disciples.3 However, there is more to it than that. The literal upward movement carries a deeper meaning—he ascended to the throne of God. For instance, when we say that Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne of England in 1952, we do not simply mean that she got up onto an ornate chair in Westminster Abbey. She did that, of course; but that (literal) getting up on the chair was at the same time a metaphor for her (literal) assumption of real power over her people. Similarly, the (literal) ascension of Christ is a metaphor of his (literal) assumption of universal authority.
In each of these examples we see how the word literal can turn out to be inadequate and even misleading, since there can be different levels of literality. It is therefore common nowadays to reserve the word literalistic for an adherence to the basic, primary meaning of a word or expression, and literal for the natural reading as intended by the author or speaker. Thus, reading the phrase “the car was flying down the road” in a literalistic way would mean understanding the car to be actually flying. Reading it literally—that is, in the natural sense—would mean that the car was going very fast. However, this usage of literal is not agreed by all, which often leads to confusion. We must, therefore, be careful with our use of literal.
I recall once talking about the Genesis creation narrative with a well-known astrophysicist, who suggested to me that it was primitive to believe the Bible. To illustrate a point, I wrote on his blackboard: “And God said, let there be light. And there was light.” He said: “That sounds really primitive. You don’t really believe it, do you? It suggests that God has a physical voice box and speaks like we do.” In other words, my colleague was taking the word “said” in its primary, natural, human sense—he was taking it literalistically. I laughed, and told him that it was now he who was being primitive. Of course God, who is spirit, doesn’t have a physical voice box, but he can communicate. In other words, the expression “And God said” denotes real, literal communication, but we do not have the slightest idea as to how it is done.
The word said means something different for God than it does for us,4 but the two usages are sufficiently related for one word to do both jobs effectively. The reason I was amused when my astrophysicist friend made his remarks is that, as I reminded him, scientists use metaphors all the time without batting an eyelid. They, of all people, should not complain when the Bible uses them.
As a general point, it is worth recalling a perceptive remark made by Henri Blocher: “Human speech rarely remains at the zero-point of plain prose, which communicates in the simplest and most direct manner, using words in their ordinary sense.”5 What Blocher means is that we all use metaphors in our ordinary conversation. How colourless life would be without them.
There is more that could be said about the use of language, but perhaps we now have enough to grasp the basic idea. And I am sure the last thing the reader wants is for this book to turn into a lengthy lesson in English grammar!
It would be a pity if, in a desire (rightly) to treat the Bible as more than a book, we ended up treating it as less than a book by not permitting it the range and use of language, order, and figures of speech that are (or ought to be) familiar to us from our ordinary experience of conversation and reading.
If we take this into account, the answer to the question, “At what level should a text be read?” is often obvious. We take the natural, primary meaning; and if that doesn’t make sense, we go for the next level. For example, Jesus’ statements “I am the door” (John 10:9) and “I am the bread of life” (John 6:48). But there are instances where the answer does not seem to be so obvious, in the sense that believers in all ages who are fully convinced of the authority of Scripture come to different interpretations. What should we do in such a situation? That was the hot-button question in the time of Galileo.
In part 2, Dr. Lennox applies these lessons to the historical controversy about whether the earth moves and what the Bible has to say (or not say) about it.
1. This is often called “the literal method.” We shall discuss the use of the word literal below.
2. This is the meaning of the Greek word anastasis, used in the New Testament for “resurrection.”
3. See Acts 1, written, it should be observed, by the historian Luke, who, as a doctor, had the nearest approximation to a scientific education of any of the New Testament writers. For Luke’s appreciation of the questions arising in connection with science and miracle, see David W. Gooding, According to Luke (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity, 1987), 37ff. For a scientific viewpoint see John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009), chap. 12.
4. Indeed, when God speaks to certain people in the Bible, he uses human language, though how he does so is, of course, unknown to us. One might go further and say that God’s speech is the primary kind and that human speech is derivative—in the sense that we are made in God’s image.
5. Henri Blocher, In the Beginning (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity, 1984), 18.