Dispatches from the Forum: On the “Plain Meaning” of Genesis One

| By on The Evolving Evangelical

INTRO BY BRAD: In addition to managing the blogs at BioLogos, I’m also the admin and chief moderator on the BioLogos Forum, which includes our comment and discussion boards. The Forum has developed into an extraordinary (and fast-growing) community of thoughtful and gracious people representing every conceivable perspective on origins, from young-earth creationists to atheists. Topics range from biblical interpretation to education to theology to scientific evidence and beyond. If you’re interested in sharing your perspective (and learning from others), I strongly recommend that you join the conversation.

Today, I’d like to start a new series entitled “Dispatches from the Forum”. In each of these posts, I will highlight an exchange from the Forum that I found to be particularly excellent, gracious, and edifying. These posts will be edited for length, but not for content or style, so pardon the rough edges. These are living examples of the sorts of conversations that BioLogos exists to foster.

This first entry features a dialogue on the meaning of the word “day” in Genesis one, which is a central interpretive question of the origins debate. The primary author is “OldTimer”, a self-identified former young-earth creationist activist who has since become outspoken about the errors of the movement. Interspersed in his words are quotes from a previous post by user “MattC”, a self-identified young-earth creationist. MattC’s words will be set off from the main text to distinguish the speakers.

As readers of my blog know, one of my passions is helping people understand that the opening chapters of Genesis can only be appropriately interpreted when we appreciate the cultural distance between ourselves and the original audience. “OldTimer” eloquently expands on that theme in this post.

MattC: The "plain meaning" of the words simply means what would be understood by someone reading them without prior knowledge of the argument and in an unbiased way as it is possible to be - although this part might be difficult. If a child, who knew nothing about evolution or creation, etc., read the text, what would they conclude from it?

OldTimer: And who gets to define "plain meaning"? Why, of all people, should it be some child that decides? When we want to understand original intent of the Founding Fathers within the Constitution, do we look to a random fourth-grader? Or do we consult learned Constitutional Law scholars? Why should the Bible deserve a lesser standard of care in terms of accurate hermeneutics?

I'd argue that the "plain meaning" of this scripture pericope would best be determined by (1) a native speaker of ancient Hebrew, (2) in the time of the author(s) of Genesis 1, and (3) preferably the author(s) who chose the words, phrases, grammar, and genre of that ancient text. I'd argue that those of us living today are far less suited for causally determining "the plain meaning". (Frankly, the last person I'd look to for an authoritative "plain meaning" of Genesis 1 would be a young child! It defies all logic and scripture and even common sense.)

Also, why should anyone think that the meaning is "plain" in the first place? Not all texts are simple. Not all scripture meanings are simple. Some are very complex. Texts are often layered in their meanings. (Remember "When I was a child, I thought as a child.") Are you confusing "child-like faith" with "child-like thinking"?

How about the "plain meaning" of Jesus' teachings in the New Testament? Are they easily discernable? Or did the disciples complain that Jesus didn't speak in such a way to make the "plain meaning" easily determined? In fact, when they complained to Jesus, he said that God chooses to hide the meaning from the masses. So that certainly doesn't sound like the "plain meaning" is necessarily the objective of scripture.

MattC: If a child, who knew nothing about evolution or creation, etc., read the text, what would they conclude from it?

OldTimer: When I was a Young Earth Creationist long ago, this was one of my colleagues' favorite arguments: the “child test”. Is the “child test” a teaching of scripture? It depends upon what is meant. When the disciples were stumped by Jesus' teachings, should they have consulted a nearby child? And when we academic types debate the exegesis of a passage at a conference, should we break the impasse by surveying a group of children?

Was the lifetime I spent on Hebrew and Greek exegesis a waste of my time? Is knowing less about the Biblical text essential to understanding the meaning of a passage? Where do I find a scripture where I'm told that the “child test” is the ultimate determiner of meaning? Obviously, you will never find such a passage.

The “child test” is a modern day evangelical tradition with its roots in the Reformation, when the Reformers were declaring their revolt against the absolute authority of the Roman clergy. What came to be called the Doctrine of the Perspicuity of Scripture certainly has its merits---but only when properly understood. The Westminster Confession says:

"...those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them."

I entirely affirm that! I do believe that those things which are essential to salvation are so clearly presented in the texts of the Bible so that both "learned and unlearned"---and yes, even a child---are capable of understanding them as led to salvation through the Holy Spirit.

In contrast, there is no claim under the Doctrine of Perspicuity that everyone---even with abundant prayer and earnestness---will be led to a complete understanding of every possible truth implication and meaning of the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic scriptures. And no Bible passage promises me that I am guaranteed an understanding of scientific, or even chronological implications of a Biblical text, when that was not the authors' purpose in a particular Biblical text.

If the “child test” were valid, I wonder why Bible translation committees don't consult a nearby child when we find ourselves stuck at a translation impasse. Yes, the final English language rendering of a particular Hebrew or Greek sentence may seem "absolutely clear" and "without ambiguity", but that is because those of us on the translation committees had to make a final decision as to what we think is the most likely meaning of what many be extremely difficult and obscure vocabulary and syntax---and we usually relegate the second most likely meaning to a footnote.

MattC: [Genesis 1] is clearly not poetry, whether in a historically Hebrew way or any other.

OldTimer: Clearly not poetry? I've spent a lifetime trying to define what is poetry and the poetic in Classical Hebrew. So I would be very interested in how you made this determination.

Does prose narrative normally observe a 3 YOM + 3 YOM chiasmic structure? [note: Yom is the Hebrew word for day, and chiasmic refers to a literary device frequently found in Genesis] Does prose narrative normally consist of six verses, each followed by a chorus, an identically worded refrain of "And the evening and the morning was the Nth YOM"? Could you please cite some examples in ancient Hebrew where a prose passage uses such a well structured, very repetitively worded, verse-refrain coupling in a series of six---and nobody calls it poetic or at least hymnic?

Whether someone choose to call such an obvious structure of six verses, each followed by the same chorus (much like a traditional poetic hymn), an example of poetry or simply a very poetically structured pericope doesn't really matter to me. I just know that historical prose certainly doesn't sound like Genesis 1 sounds! Show me prose that is composed of six verses, each followed by an identical chorus, that is not considered at least poetic!

MattC: Examples of poetry can be found elsewhere and they show no resemblance to the general text of Genesis 1.

OldTimer: There are many examples of Hebrew poetry reflecting the many different elements of Hebrew poetic style and structure. If you are saying that the elements in Genesis 1 are very different from the poetic elements in Lamentations, for example, I would certainly agree. But that is like saying Lord Cardigan's Charge of the Light Brigade can't be English poetry because it "shows no resemblance" to the children's poem, "Mary had a little lamb, his fleece was white as snow. And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go." So, MattC, I would like to know how you made your determination.

Yet, even if one could successfully argue that there are no poetic literary elements in Genesis 1 (good luck with that), that still wouldn't demand that it be considered historical prose narrative.

MattC: ...but why have a different meaning to the word "day" here, when it obviously does mean that everywhere else as referenced above.

OldTimer: Answer: Because even in the early chapters of Genesis, the word YOM/day is not used with only one meaning! We are told in Genesis 2:4:

"These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens."

Not even six/24-hour-day "Biblical creationists" believe that God made the earth and the sun, moon, and stars on same 24-hour day! Even Ken Ham & Co. admit that in "the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens", YOM means "period of time".

Moreover, when I was a Young Earth Creationist, I would have told you that the seventh YOM, the day in which God's creative activity rested, was not limited to twenty-four hours but persists until the present. So my question for you is this: If you read YOM literally as requiring an exclusive meaning of a 24-hour day, do you believe God resumed his creating once the seventh day was over? Did God create more things on Day 8?

And what is "a Sabbath rest for the people of God" in Hebrews 4:9? Is that a 24-hour day as well?

MattC: In Genesis there could have been other words used that would mean extended lengths of time. Why didn't God/Moses use any of these?

OldTimer: MattC, why does God have to live up to your or my expectations? Are you saying that God cannot use the conventions of human language because whenever he does so, there is always room for misunderstanding and ambiguity? Do you think that Jesus should have not said, "I am the door of the sheep" because (1) Jesus is not literally a door, and (2) Jesus is not the kind of "literal shepherd" who spends his time literally leading and literally grazing the literal flock of literal sheep?

I do understand where you are coming from and what the disciples meant when they complained to Jesus, "Why do you speak in parables? Why do you say things in ways that make it so hard to understand?" And did you notice what Jesus said in reply: Easy understanding was not his primary goal! (I'll resist the temptation to pursue this huge topic and the role of mystery in the Bible.)

I spent a lot of my life dealing with Bible translation and helping Bible translators on the field. They constantly dealt with the problem of ambiguity and misunderstanding that arose both in the original language texts of the scriptures and in the target languages they had to use to reach people for Christ. My favorite example was, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." Translating that literally into the language of an Amazonian jungle tribe would mean that Jesus was declaring himself a literal thief! Only thieves knocked on the door of a hut. If nobody responded to the knock, the thief would go in and steal. But a genuine friend would call out the name of the person who owned the hut. So the Wycliffe translators told me that they chose message over literalism and rendered the Biblical text: "Hello. I stand at your door and call to you."

MattC, do you think my Wycliffe friends were denying the clear meaning (and wording) of the scripture? Were they denying God himself? I actually had an angry man walk up to me after a sermon where I used that example and told me that those translators were going to hell for refusing to honor the Word of God---and me too for speaking well of them. He said that God chose every word of the Bible and it was heretical and blasphemous for us to dare "change them". (Does that mean Bible translation is evil? Should all preaching be done in ancient Hebrew and Greek?) He said that we should have translated "according to God's law" and not "man's law". (Kinda sounds like Ken Ham wording, doesn't it!) He said that the missionaries should explain to the natives how in Jesus' culture they had very different customs than those of the "pagan jungle"! He said that people should accommodate God instead of the other way around.

MattC, long ago I preached from the pulpit and university lectern many of the arguments you are making today. A half century of study of the Hebrew scriptures, general/historical linguistics, and science led me to abandon and apologize for my past errors. I can assure you that I still keep up with "creation science" and YEC-exegesis trends. I reject them not because I don't understand them---but because I do. In any case, nobody has to know everything about the Young Earth Creationist brand of "biblical creationism" to identify major errors.

 


Notes

Citations

MLA

Kramer, Brad. "Dispatches from the Forum: On the “Plain Meaning” of Genesis One"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 26 Jan. 2016. Web. 19 September 2018.

APA

Kramer, B. (2016, January 26). Dispatches from the Forum: On the “Plain Meaning” of Genesis One
Retrieved September 19, 2018, from /blogs/brad-kramer-the-evolving-evangelical/dispatches-from-the-forum-on-the-plain-meaning-of-genesis-one

References & Credits

The original exchange can be found in full here. I encourage you to read the continued exchange between MattC and OldTimer, as well as the other contributors in this conversation.

 

About the Author

Brad Kramer

Brad Kramer is the BioLogos managing editor. He completed his M.Div. at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and earned a BA in politics, philosophy, and economics from The King’s College in New York City. His articles have appeared in The Daily BeastPatrol, and OnFaith.

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