Ch. 3-4: The Importance of Reading the Biblical Text in Context

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Note: This is the second part of a blog series connected to our fall book club. Today, book club participant Mike Beidler reflects on how to acknowledge and appreciate the ancient context of the Bible, especially as it relates to passages that seem to relate to modern science.

One of the most commonly voiced objections to the Bible’s divine inspiration is that our sacred Scriptures contain clear evidence of an assumed ancient cosmology—a feature that some claim should not be present if God truly inspired the biblical authors. It wasn’t until the Renaissance, when the Galileo controversy erupted, that the two paradigms—one ancient and one modern—collided in a major conflict that is still with us today in various permutations.

As we’ll read in Chapter 6 of Origins, a view that is becoming increasingly popular in evangelical Christian circles recognizes ancient Near Eastern cosmology in Scripture while at the same time embracing both modern cosmology and the divine inspiration of the Bible. When such a position is held in light of the claim that “because God does not contradict himself, nature and Scripture cannot be in actual conflict” (p. 94), the resulting tension naturally lends itself to other questions:

When comparing the two books of God’s revelation—nature and Scripture—what would be an example of God “contradicting himself”? What would be considered an “actual conflict”?

In other words, if God’s two books of revelation truly conflict, does it have a real impact on the Bible’s theological statements? Should it have a real impact? I will attempt to address these types of concerns and suggest a perspective by which one can affirm the harmony of God’s two revelatory “books” without sacrificing the Bible on the altar of modern science or disrespecting the limited cosmology of our spiritual forebears.

International Business and the Bible

Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated with the vastness of human civilization in all of its diversity. Although my family moved around frequently during my first eight years, I did not comprehend the true size of the Earth until I opened an atlas for the first time in the third grade. That atlas inspired me to seek out more information about those places—places that were quite different from America in their languages, customs, fashions, political systems, and economies. It took a short-term missions trip to Africa at the age of 16 and a 22-year career in the U.S. Navy for me to obtain a first-hand look at the places I had only read about as a child.

However, short-term missions trips and occasional shore leave excursions during port visits would only go so far toward understanding how significant cultural differences can impede effective communication. While enrolled in an international business degree program a decade ago, I studied a number of cases that demonstrated how much could go wrong if two business partners from different cultures failed to take the time to understand each other. It was through this program that I learned an extremely important principle for establishing and maintaining effective international business relationships: walking in another person’s shoes. Until I took time to develop a rapport with my military or business counterparts and learn what was and wasn’t important to them, I would be at a significant disadvantage in establishing a relationship of mutual understanding and trust.

So what does all this have to do with reconciling Scripture and science? Simply, when we sit down to read sacred Scripture, we must undertake this same process of developing a rapport with the Bible’s various authors and their worldviews. Otherwise, we will unintentionally demand they communicate in the same manner we do, or perceive as important the same things we do as children of Western civilization, with our post-Enlightenment obsession with scientific and historical exactitude.

Too often, we treat the Bible as if it were a singular and homogeneous book written directly to us. We fail to appreciate the fact that the various books collected in our sacred Scriptures were written in the foreign context of ancient cultures either long dead or massively transformed beyond recognition over the millennia. Although a significant degree of theological continuity exists within the people of God stretching from the obscure prehistoric origins of humanity to today, we always lose something when we fail to properly translate our inherited faith’s original literary and cultural trappings into a vibrant, meaningful form for us today. Generational gaps within our own modern culture—even between family members living in the same household—testify to the occasional difficulty in finding a common frame of reference. (In my estimation, there must have been an early scribal omission that removed the mention of teenagers from the Adamic curse!)

Cosmological Misappropriation and Conflicts of Interest

Because our Hebrew and Christian Scriptures were not written in cultural vacuums, comparing the Hebrew Scriptures with other examples of ancient Near Eastern literature and thought in order to understand them better is extremely important. Likewise, exposure to ancient Greek literature and thought will also provide great insight into early Christianity’s own corpus of sacred literature and theology.

Once we accomplish this—still keeping in mind that scholars are influenced, just as we readers are, by their own worldviews—we can learn to recognize what was and wasn’t important to the ancient Hebrews, Second Temple Jews, and the early Church. Many biblical scholars have concluded that the scientific questions and concerns we tend to bring to the Bible today would have been foreign to the authors of sacred Scripture. While debates certainly raged between the Jews and their neighbors regarding God’s (or the gods’) true identity, nature, and character, scientific debates simply didn’t extend to the kinds of matter-of-fact details about which we continuously obsess in our post-Enlightenment culture. These ancient arguments were regulated primarily to matter-of-who details.

As later chapters of Origins will demonstrate, the writers of sacred Scripture possessed a significantly different scientific worldview than we do today. Thus, our perpetual challenge in interpreting Scripture is recognizing andrespecting the ancients’ vantage point (scientifically speaking) while simultaneously ensuring that the Hebrews' less-than-accurate cosmology is not used inappropriately today. When we misappropriate this ancient cosmology, we inadvertently generate “conflicts of interest.” That is to say, what interests us scientifically today did not necessarily interest the biblical authors.

Thus, I am of the opinion that the question about whether sacred Scripture should trump science or science should trump Scripture is somewhat misguided. When we read the Bible’s opening verses and envision God fashioning a spherical earth that spins on a tilted axis and revolves around the sun, we unjustifiably import a scientifically accurate, but culturally inappropriate, conception into the text. Immersed in heliocentric cosmology from our earliest memories, our hermeneutical shift from literal to non-literal when engaging these passages is practically imperceptible and flows quite naturally. Our modern worldview, rooted in observational science, keeps us from reading in a literal fashion certain problematic passages that feature ancient cosmology (e.g., the firmament and the waters above; cf. Gen 1:6-8 and Ps 19:1). As a result, we end up choosing—quite unconsciously—to read these same passages assuming that the biblical authors were merely using the language of appearances without actually holding to an inaccurate cosmology. Rarely do we comprehend how much modern science has influenced our private interpretation of Scripture. Yet, reading Scripture in this manner essentially forces the biblical authors to comport with our scientific understanding. We unwittingly rip these passages out of their ancient contexts and muffle the worldviews of our spiritual forebears and, in doing so, fail to fully respect their worldview as the means by which God originally communicated his truths.

Accommodating God’s Children

This brings us to an extremely important principle when engaging in biblical interpretation. Recognizing the presence of biblical cosmology in Scripture tells us something critically essential about God’s nature: He condescends to our level in the best possible way. God accommodated himself to the ancients’ worldviews as he inspired their efforts to record their encounter with the divine. Consider the confusion that would have resulted if God had revealed to the author of Genesis how he really fashioned his creation. Would such a paradigm have made sense to Genesis’ author? Consider an alternate scenario: If God were to inspire modern-day Scripture using terms and concepts with which we are accustomed, does it not follow that our descendants millennia from now will possess a grander cosmological paradigm and view our (hypothetical) inscripturated cosmology as antiquated?

This highlights another important principle: God’s utilization of scientifically inaccurate cosmologies to communicate truth does not necessitate divine endorsement of the same. In other words, we should not consider divine accommodation in Scripture as instances of God contradicting himself. Like the process of evolution, in which a population’s morphology slowly transforms utilizing the genetic material at hand, God chooses to mold his people within certain boundaries, that is, within the limited cultural contexts and paradigms at hand. The parallels with evolution do not end there: It took God vast amounts of time to lead his people into newer, more beautiful (and accurate!) scientific and theological paradigms. As well, as each body of investigation attempts to address the concerns of the day, both the doctrinal formulation of Christian theology and scientific formulation of the manner by which God governs the cosmos require paradigm shifts that can sometimes be quite painful.

Back to Business

Once we make the effort to walk in the ancients’ sandals and respect their unique vantage point, we can go about the business of interpreting and applying Scripture more faithfully. Such attempts to faithfully interpret (and thereby apply) Scripture require that we acknowledge that there are, in fact, contradictions between what the Bible assumes is true about the cosmos (for the purposes of communication) and what modern science teachesis true about the cosmos. Yet, what do we do with irreconcilable contradictions between biblical and modern cosmologies once we acknowledge their existence?

Do we highlight them as proof that the sacred Scriptures are not divinely inspired? Do we consider passages of Scripture that merely contains (but not necessarily teaches as an article of faith) a scientifically outmoded cosmology as examples of God “contradicting himself”?

Or …

Do we delineate reasonable boundaries for this science-Scripture conflict? Do we conclude that the very real conflict between cosmologies is simply incidental to the Bible’s message, thus negating the theological impact of such a conflict?

We give real power to these types of conflicts only when we unnecessarily attempt to equate the Bible’s cultural accommodations with modern scientific observations that were impossible for the ancients to grasp millennia ago. Thus, our mandate as 21st-century Christians is to use our God-given intellect and nurture an ability to shift back and forth between Scripture’s ancient cosmological paradigm and our own Enlightenment-influenced worldview in order to better understand both the ancient Hebrews and the culturally transcendent theology God intends to communicate through human words. It takes considerable practice to recognize where in Scripture God accommodates various worldviews, but the results are worth it. Such a skill goes a long way toward resolving science-faith “conflicts of interest” and underscores the primary message God always intended to communicate to his people—both ancient Hebrews and modern Christians—through sacred Scripture, that we may say together, across the sands of time, “Amen, and Amen.”


Notes

Citations

MLA

Beidler, Mike. "Ch. 3-4: The Importance of Reading the Biblical Text in Context"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 25 Sep. 2014. Web. 21 January 2019.

APA

Beidler, M. (2014, September 25). Ch. 3-4: The Importance of Reading the Biblical Text in Context
Retrieved January 21, 2019, from /blogs/archive/ch-3-4-the-importance-of-reading-the-biblical-text-in-context

About the Author

Mike Beidler

A retired U.S. Navy commander, Mike currently resides in the Washington DC Metro Area and works as a foreign affairs specialist for the Department of the Navy. Mike holds an MS in Global Leadership from the University of San Diego, a BA in Political Science from the University of Michigan, and an AA in Persian-Farsi from the U.S. Army’s Defense Language Institute. Mike is President of the DC Metro Section of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) and a member of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

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