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Reading the Bible Plain and Simple, Part 1

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February 13, 2010 Tags: Lives of Faith
Reading the Bible Plain and Simple, Part 1

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

In the 1980s, I picked up the book The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris. It was the first book I was aware of that seemed to maintain respect for the Bible as God’s Word yet also produced legitimate scientific arguments for its viewpoint. I was hooked. I became a fan of young-earth six-day creationism for the next twenty plus years of my Christian faith walk. It only seemed right since Genesis “plainly and simply” described creation in six literal days and provided a historical chronology of creation to the creation to Israel.

As an orthodox Christian, I have always been committed to the doctrine of Inspiration. This means that the Bible is the very Word of God “breathed” through the writing of men (2Tim 3:16; 1Pet 1:20-21). A biblical and logical consequence of this doctrine is the commitment to Scripture as the final authority for faith and life. This authority, as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, “for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) (WFC 1.4).” God’s Word trumps human understanding, which remains finite, fallible and infected by sin. I change my beliefs to be in accord with what the Bible says – plain and simple.

Clearly, this epistemic first principle is not acceptable to non-Christians who believe in various stories of autonomous human reason. But I am not addressing unbelievers, but rather those who share my faith in God’s Word as ultimate authority.

So, back to my story. I didn’t find the arguments for a “non-literal” interpretation of Genesis 1 to be satisfactory because they all engaged in verbal gymnastics obscuring the “plain and simple” reading of the text. God speaks plainly in a language the common person can understand; and the text states plain and simple a literal six-day chronological creation of the material universe through fiat acts in opposition to evolutionary mutation and adaptation. “After their own kind,” “God said ‘Let there be… and there was,’” and all that stuff. The story of evolution contradicted the Genesis story of creation, so I stuck with God’s story.

But as I learned more about the ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment of the Bible, I began to discover an unwitting cultural imperialism in my hermeneutic. My claim to read the text “plain and simple” actually meant to read the text “through my 20th century modern scientific Western cultural definition of “plain and simple.” For instance, when I read the English translated word, “earth” in the Bible, the image that comes to mind, and therefore colors my interpretation, is the famous photo of the spherical globe in space. But the ancient Jewish scribe did not have this image or knowledge in his mind. So when he wrote the Hebrew word for earth, he meant a variety of concepts like the dirt of dry land (Gen. 27:28) or the Promised Land (Josh. 2:24; Rev. 1:7) or the known land of an empire (Dan. 4:1, Luke 2:1), but he most certainly did not mean a spherical globe in space.

This is but one example among many of the differences between the ancient Near East and the modern Far West, separated by such vast differences of time, space and perception, that to read the Bible “plain and simple” through my modern Western eyes is to more often than not misread it. The Bible is written in plain and simple language to the common man – the common man of the ancient Near East, not the common man of the modern Far West. To put it plain and simple, my “plain and simple” is not the Bible’s “plain and simple.”

I put this another way in my book, Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story and Imagination: In order to understand the text through the eyes of the original readers, I had to learn to read it not literally but literarily because it is literature of their time and culture, not mine. So I sought to reread the text of Genesis through different eyes, the eyes of an ancient Near Eastern Jew. And I would soon have to face the fact that those ancient eyes saw nothing of the modern scientific culture through which I had been interpreting this sacred book of origins.

Brian continues his story in Part 2.

Brian Godawa is the screenwriter of To End All Wars and other feature films. He has written and directed documentaries on church-state relations, stem cell research and higher education politics. He is the author of Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press) and Chronicles of the Nephilim, a series of fantasy novels about Biblical heroes within their ancient Near Eastern mythological context. He speaks around the country to churches, high schools and colleges on movies, worldviews and faith. His movie blog can be found at godawa.com/movieblog/.

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amy b - #4413

February 13th 2010

“In order to understand the text through the eyes of the original readers, I had to learn to read it not literally but literarily because it is literature of their time and culture, not mine”

well said

Norm - #4414

February 13th 2010

Let’s not forget that there were various factions of Jews reading the scriptures from different viewpoints themselves by the time of Christ.  So it’s not just simply reading it in the manner of a ANE Jew but in the manner of which one’s. The resurrection is just one area of difference amongst them.

So perhaps we need to focus on the NT spirit led Jews that interpreted it differently than most of the other Jews.

Ben Smith - #4416

February 13th 2010

Good article on this style of viewing the bible. I made a similar transition a few years back (after reading Dr. Collins book among other things). It’s good to hear stories like these. Hope to see part 2 soon!

Glen Davidson - #4423

February 13th 2010

That’s just it, though, there’s this a priori belief that, ‘since the Bible is God’s word’ and ‘written for us,’ it must be immediately understandable to just anybody.

And tough luck getting anyone committed to that belief to understand the difficulties without his taking a college course about it, or receiving some equivalent education.

Glen Davidson

Dick Fischer - #4598

February 16th 2010

Parallel flood stories written by the Akkadians clarify the flood episode as a local event.  One clue comes from the legend of Atrahasis.  The word for “deep” can mean the sea, it can refer to subterranean waters, or it can mean the depths of a river.  And “fountains” refers to the dykes and levies and water control apparatus they used for irrigating their fields.  In the Atrahasis epic, the phrases “fountains of the deep” or “fountain of the deep” appear four times.  In all instances, fountain(s) pertain to “fields,” as in this example:

  Below the fountain of the deep was stopped,
              that the flood rose not at the source,
  The field diminished its fertility.

In the Atrahasis epic a period of draught precedes the great flood.  Our hero patiently for the rain to fall.  He sees the crops dying out as the irrigation canals run dry.  In the eleventh tablet of Gilgamesh account, Ninurta was the “lord of the wells and irrigation works.”  So, we should know from consistency in usage that the phrase refers to overflowing water causing the dams, dikes, and irrigation canals to burst open, flooding the land.

Thor - #4814

February 18th 2010

I know many Christians who are committed to sound hermeneutics and do not succumb to demythologizing the Bible.  One thing the Bible makes clear over and over again is that God’s power manifests itself in ways that sometimes go contrary to the laws of nature, e.g. Jesus walking on the sea.

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