Reading the Bible Plain and Simple, Part 2
In my previous post, I explained my original involvement for most of my life with a young-earth six-literal day creationism. As an Evangelical believer, God’s Word is my ultimate authority. I must believe what God says, not what my fallen sinful culture tells me to believe – which is why I am no longer a young-earth six-literal day creationist.
The goal of proper biblical hermeneutics (interpreting the Bible) is to understand the text through the eyes of its original writers and readers. If we are to believe that “in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth,” we must believe what God means by that proposition within their cultural context, not what it means to us within our cultural context.
As a Western Christian addressing the varying interpretations of the Bible I had been claiming, “I just believe what the Bible says, plain and simple.” But I eventually came to discover that this hermeneutic is actually an egregious usurpation of God’s Word. The “plain and simple” of my modern Western perspective is not the “plain and simple” of the ancient Near Eastern perspective of the Bible.
It was plain and simple to the ancient Near Eastern mind that the naming of things exerts covenantal authority over them (Gen. 2:19). It is plain and simple to my modern mind that names are merely taxonomic references for things. It was plain and simple to the ancient Near Eastern mind that creation accounts are about deity giving order, purpose and function to the world. It is plain and simple to my modern mind that a creation account should be about how material substance came into existence. Plain and simple is not so plain and simple after all.
The biggest example of this cultural imperialism was in my attempt to read Genesis 1 as a scientific chronological description of the creation of the material universe. Interpreting the words of Genesis to concord with the Big Bang theory or modern physics, the creation days as 24 hours or long ages, the chronology to match the geologic column: All these attempts assumed that God was privileging modern 20th century post-Enlightened science over the paradigms of the people to whom and through whom he originally wrote. This is the unwitting arrogance of cultural imperialism – plain and simple.
As I researched further, I had to be honest and admit that the Scriptures do in fact contain common ancient Near Eastern cosmological notions that do not comport with modern scientific paradigms: “earth” as an immovable (Psa 104:5) flat circular disk of land (Isa 40:22) on foundational pillars (2Sam 2:8) surrounded by a circle of water (Prov 8:27) that goes to the edge of a solid dome sky (Job 37:18, 22:14) that holds back waters above (Psa 104:2, 148:8) with floodgates to release rain (Gen 7:11) with God’s throne above those waters (Psa 104:2), and all in a three-tiered universe of heavens, earth and Sheol (Phil 2:10). And this model isn’t just vaguely referenced in a couple of obscure passages, it is woven through the entire text of both Old and New Testaments! It is not that the Bible teaches this model as absolute reality, but rather that the writers assumed the model in their understanding, and God chose not to “correct” their view.
Does this mean the Bible is “errant,” or untrustworthy? Not if its purpose is to teach truth about God, faith and life as opposed to modern scientific theories. The point would be that God is to be glorified for creation no matter what model of images we use to describe it, Mesopotamian, Ptolemaic, Newtonian, Copernican, Einsteinian, Quantum, ad infinitum. And let’s be doubly honest here. To presume our 21st century scientific models are the absolute truth is sheer ignorance and cultural imperialism as well. It is no less a model that will be overthrown in 500 years than that of the ancient Near Eastern model. As Jesus would say, “The Kingdom of heaven is like…”
I would have to face the fact that the ancient Near Eastern conceptual worldview had nothing in common with the modern scientific worldview. It was pre-scientific, and could not have possibly addressed origins in the way that we would today. Reading science into the text of Genesis – whether young earth or old earth, fiat or evolution, Big Bang or not -- is imposing a modern prejudice upon the text with the violence of a cultural Jihadist.
When I came to realize that Scripture does not intend to communicate about science as we understand it, I was freed from the dichotomy that shadows many Christians’ lives; a false dichotomy of choice between creation or evolution, God’s word or man’s science. The Bible is claiming the theological meaning and purpose of creation, not the scientific method of material processes. As the Westminster Confession of Faith says, the Bible is “given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life” not of scientific theory. Because I believe that I must change my beliefs to be in accord with what the Bible says, I am no longer a young-earth six-literal day creationist because I no longer believe that the Bible is addressing such modern scientific issues at all. See my paper, “Biblical Creation and Storytelling: Cosmogony, Combat, and Covenant” on the BioLogos website for a detailed examination of the ancient genre of creation accounts.
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/.