Editor's note: This post was first published as a two part series in February 2010.
As an Evangelical Christian, I had 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 (2 Tim. 3:16; 1 Pet. 1:20-21). A biblical and logical consequence of this doctrine is a 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.
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, that “blue marble.” 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. So then to read the Bible “plain and simple” through my modern Western eyes is, more often than not, to 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 plainly and simply, my “plain and simple” is not the Bible’s “plain and simple.”
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.
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. 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 or 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. I was 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.
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 (2 Sam. 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 underworld (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.
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 human’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. Though I am not yet convinced of an evolutionary paradigm, I feel perfectly free to explore it and consider it without fear, because if I find it to be true, it will not threaten my faith.