Reading the Bible Plain and Simple, Part 1
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.