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The real literalists

There is a kind of scholarship that starts with a very literalistic reading of a source text, finds contradictions in it, and concludes either that it is a combination of contradictory texts or that a very non-literal reading is justified. This is a method that seeks to justify one extreme by criticizing another extreme. No serious thought is given to the many options between these extremes, that the text is meant neither as a literal extreme nor a figurative extreme.

For example, Genesis 1:1 to 2:2 contrasted with Genesis 2:3 to 2:22 has differences that are asserted to be in conflict and hence represent contradictory traditions. The Documentary (Wellhausen) Hypothesis explains perceived inconsistencies in the Pentateuch by asserting it was written independently by four different authors and subsequently woven together by redactors. While the presence of various sources in the Bible is not a concern, the assertion that these contradict one another is.

This line of scholarship leads in two directions: (1) discerning every contradictory thread and inferring various factions, and (2) interpreting the whole text by inferring poetic license. So a whole panoply of figurative devices is promoted for hermeneutics and a playwright’s brew of characters is encouraged for historical studies.

There is an alternative to this game: reading the text not too literally and not too metaphorically. That is how people normally speak and it works rather well. People who are called biblical literalists usually do this and are able to reconcile supposed contradictions through a natural but close reading of the text. Those who are most opposed to literalism are the ones who follow the kind of scholarship I have outlined and end up with a one-two punch of a very literal reading (rejected) followed by an excessively metaphorical reading that knocks out the intended meaning.

Apparent age

If someone from an isolated, technologically undeveloped culture sees an electronic gadget, they may think this took a long time to make.  Does the gadget have apparent age?  No, someone is merely ignorant of how it was made.

Similarly, Adam and the original creation did not have apparent age.  Some people may be ignorant of how Adam was created but that does not make him older than he is.  It is a question of knowledge vs. ignorance, not actual vs. apparent age.

Fourfold Gospel

There is one Gospel but four ways of understanding it.  These correspond to the four “Gospels”, that is, the Gospel according to Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John.  They each emphasize different aspects of the good news of Jesus Christ.  For example, see Characteristic Differences of the Four Gospels (which Kregel Publications calls “Four Views of Christ”) by Andrew Jukes.

The fourfold Gospel includes a fourfold atonement corresponding to the key roles and accomplishments of Jesus Christ:

(1) Victor:  He overcame death, hell, sin, and Satan, that is, evil and all its manifestations, without denying the rights of Satan and his minions.  Christ is Lord, King, and Ruler of all.

(2) Sacrifice:  He provided a way for God to forgive us without compromising righteousness.  He did this by satisfying the requirements of justice on our behalf.  Christ is Priest, Lamb, and Temple for all.

(3) Mediator:  He restored our relationship to God, that is, overcame our alienation from God, without ignoring the development of our alienation.  Christ is Prophet and Intercessor for all.

(4) Exemplar:  He embodied the way, the truth, and the life of God, showing us how to live, what to think, and which actions to take.  Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

2005

Faith that works

Is this a dispute about words? It could be but these are key terms and so much is bound up with them that it is important to get their meanings right.

What is this faith that works? In the first place, this faith always leads to some action, and such action is always more than saying that one has such a faith. However, the Apostle Paul affirms that verbal confession of the Lordship of Jesus Christ accompanied by belief in the heart is sufficient to ensure one’s salvation. Rom. 10.9.

We can begin to see a difference between the confession of faith in Romans and the mere claim that such faith exists in James’ letter. Here is a financial analogy: One person has money on deposit at a bank and they trust that the bank will return the deposit with interest on request. Someone else owns a financial derivative that is based on this deposit and they believe this will benefit them financially. In the latter case a deposit exists somewhere but the person does not own it; they own something related to it. In the former case the person owns the deposit although they can’t see it except in documents they trust. In the analogy, these documents are like the Bible which provides assurance that salvation is ours to possess. The derivatives are like an assertion that such faith exists but are not personal possessions.

So we see the danger of a derivative faith, which is mere assent without conviction.

There is another aspect of saving faith: follow through. Jesus gave a parable about a farmer planting a seed and not knowing how it grows but trusting that it does. This is implicitly contrasted with someone who plants a sees and doubts that it is growing so they dig it up frequently to check it out. Such a seed doesn’t mature. The former is saving faith that follows through and the latter is faith that is undermined by doubt and doesn’t follow through. As Jesus said in another context, “He who endures to the end will be saved.”

While the formula “sola fides” is rejected by the scriptures as a formula, it expresses scriptural truth when accompanied by further explanation. What is the scriptural formula? Why do we need formulas? The scriptural truth is clear enough: salvation is by faith and saving faith confesses the lordship of Christ and follow through with corresponding actions. The particular actions are not specified; the content of the faith is specified: Jesus is Lord. Believe it and act accordingly.

2008

Reductionism and kinds

Reductionism goes beyond naturalism to say that biology is reducible to chemistry which is reducible to physics.  The acid of reductionism turns fixed kinds into temporary kinds and differences in kind into differences in degree.

The paradigmatic example of differences in kind is the periodic table of elements.  This structure is fixed and unchangeable.  But it is problematic because it can apparently be reduced to the physics of atoms.  This is considered to reflect the maturity of chemistry — that it can be reduced to something else, that its limits are known.  But that undermines the reality of kinds.

Can we get rid of reductionism?  No, in some ways it reflects what is there.  Instead we have to counter reductionism with its opposite.

Reductionism says the universe is constructed from many simple entities.  That is not untrue but it is not the full truth.  The universe is also reconstructed from one complex entity, called the earth in Gen. 1:2.  The division of light and dark, of land and sea, of land and sky, and of creatures in these various divisions are a testimony to this.

Modern science began with a turn away from explanations in terms of the “metaphysical” causes of teleology and design to the “empirical” causes of efficient/temporal and material explanations.  The former are top-down explanations, the latter are bottom-up explanations.  We need to bring both of these together.

To do this requires a dynamic method — a dialectic that allows these two halves to work together without either replacing the other.  This means seeing them as complementary rather than conflicting.  That would be new in Western culture, where a fixed method or contradictory dialectic has dominated.  This would also be consistent with the Genesis mandate to be stewards of nature rather than the modern mandate to command and control nature.

September 2014

All the literalists

Literalism means adherence to the explicit sense of a given text or doctrine. It is practiced by some Christians, who are called biblical literalists. But as Conrad Hyers (professor of comparative religion at Gustavus Adolphus College) noted, “one often finds a literalist understanding of Bible and faith being assumed by those who have no religious inclinations, or who are avowedly antireligious in sentiment.” (Hyers, Conrad “Biblical Literalism: Constricting the Cosmic Dance“, Christian Century, August 4-11, 1982, p. 823.)

Those who believe that Christ is objectively present in the Eucharist — are they not promoting a literal interpretation of Christ’s words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood”? And those who believe in the social gospel — are they not taking what the Bible says about justice for the poor as literally true? Other religions also have literal interpreters, such as Islam’s Wahhabi (who prefer to be called “unitarians”). Ideological movements such as Marxism and scientism have their literalists, too.

Someone who exhibits literalism in some way is often assumed to be a wooden literalist, which is a literalist who ignores figurative language. While this may occur in some cases, even an extreme literalist such as Finis Jennings Dake acknowledges non-literal language. Dake stated his hermeneutic as follows: “Take the Bible literally wherein it is at all possible; if symbolic, figurative or typical language is used, then look for the literal truth it intends to convey. Statements of fact and historical accounts are accepted as such.” (Dake, Dake Annotated Reference Bible, Introduction).

Literalism is often associated with theologically conservative Christians who follow an historical-grammatical hermeneutic that strives to discover the meaning of a passage as the original author would have intended and what the original hearers would have understood. This is not literalism in a literal sense so the word literalism is being applied rather indiscriminately.

In a post-modern age in which all sorts of teachings that were formerly considered heresies are tolerated and promoted, literalism seems to be the last remaining heresy. It was first associated with Christian fundamentalism, which has been vilified since the early 20th century. With the rise of “Islamic fundamentalism,” literalism became associated with terroristic movements. It’s not difficult to imagine that literalism may one day be outlawed — literally!

January 2010

Biblical geocentrism

Since the downfall of Ptolemaic astronomy, the Bible’s geocentric language has been an embarrassment to believers. Unbelievers spin the Galileo affair into a grand struggle between science and religion while believers hesitantly defend the Bible as speaking in prescientific terms. But when understood correctly, geocentrism is a valid position and one which we all use. The key is to understand that the Bible speaks in terms of cycles, not orbits.

Genesis 1 says: 14 And God said, Let there be lights in the expanse of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: 15 And let them be for lights in the expanse of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. 16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heaven to give light upon the earth, 18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good. 19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.

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The Bible vs. secular historical sciences

The Bible is diachronic but secular historical sciences are synchronic.  Let me explain.

The term “diachronic” arose in the study of the development of languages over a long time, which was the focus of linguistics in the 19th century.  But to make linguistics more scientific in the 20th century this changed to study languages as systems during particular time periods. The former approach was called diachronic, the latter synchronic.  These terms have come into use in history as the study of a people or place over a long stretch of time (diachronic) vs. the study of a time period over a large area (synchronic).

The Bible follows the Hebrew people over a long stretch of time, from their beginning on, which is diachronic.  The historical sciences are strongly synchronic: they study a wide area over a distinct period (or series of distinct periods) of time.

Synchronic linguistics is unified by the premise that languages have a common origin, a genetic relationship.  So the question becomes how to explain the differences between languages.  When this synchronic premise was applied to biological species, the question became how to explain the differences between species.

The Bible presents the opposite:  that biological kinds/baramin are distinct, though they have the same Creator.  So the question for a biblical biology is how to explain the similarities between distinct kinds/baramin.  A particular study might study a baramin over a long time.  Several of such studies might lead to the discovery of parallel changes in baramin that are explained by environmental changes and similar ways of adapting.  These are diachronic studies.

So the Bible and secular historical sciences diverge, not only because they have different premises but because they have different approaches to historical science.  The Bible is diachronic and secular science is synchronic.

November 2013

Biblical realism

Philosophical realism basically means that the objects of ordinary perception exist independently of our minds.  We apprehend objects independent of our understanding what happened or how they got here.  This common-sense realism is assumed by most people but denied by most philosophers since Descartes.

Observations of objects do not need interpretation for us to record that something is there or something happened.  Further investigation can answer the what and how questions.  Similarly, it is not necessary to delve into theological interpretations to find that the chronologies in the Bible are an accurate record of things that did happen and so should be acceptable to unbelievers and believers alike.  Anti-realists insist on knowing how things could have happened before they accept what exists or existed but for realists that is a secondary matter.

Creationism does not rise or fall on its interpretation of the evidence but on accepting the most accurate record of ancient chronology, the Bible.  In the 18th century anti-realists invented their own non-biblical account:  the myth that mankind was originally in a primitive “state of nature” and only gradually developed civilization.  Since it made sense to them, it had to be true.  They take the same approach to evolution and everything else: what should be true (to their thinking) must be true.

July 2013

On Galileo’s Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina

Reference: Discoveries and Opinions of Galileotr. by Stillman Drake, Anchor Books, 1957

Galileo wrote a letter in 1615 “to the most serene Grand Duchess Christina.”  In his second sentence Galileo notes his opponents were “academic philosophers” who held “physical notions” he contradicted.  They were not ecclesiastical authorities as is so often claimed today.  He asserts “they made the grave mistake of sprinkling” their “numerous writings” “with passages taken from places in the Bible which they had failed to understand properly, and which were ill suited to their purposes.”  This sets up the focus of the letter on the proper relationship between what he later calls “mathematics” (which would be called physical science today).

He goes on to quote St. Augustine to the effect that “dubious points” should not be used to “conceive a prejudice” against something that may later be shown to be true of the Bible.  He goes on to affirm he holds the Bible, theologians, and Church Councils “to be of supreme authority” as any good Catholic would but this is hedged by saying “when employed according to the usage of the holy Church.”

He holds “the sun to be situated motionless in the center of the revolution of the celestial orbs while the earth rotates on its axis and revolves about the sun.”  Note the key issue is motion, not centricity, as Galileo accurately states it.  The Ptolemaic position is that the earth is still and the sun in motion around it.  He goes on to assert his opponents “have resolved to fabricate a shield for their fallacies out of the mantle of pretended religion and the authority of the Bible.”

Galileo states he is not asserting novel opinions but is the “restorer and confirmer” of the opinions of Copernicus who was a Catholic in good standing with the Church.  Then he makes this statement about his opponents:

Contrary to the sense of the Bible and the intention of the holy Fathers, if I am not mistaken, they would extend such authorities until even in purely physical matters – where faith is not involved – they would have us altogether abandon reason and the evidence of our senses in favor of some biblical passage, though under the surface meaning of its words this passage may contain a different sense.

He notes about Copernicus —

For Copernicus never discusses matters of religion or faith, nor does he use arguments that depend in any way upon the authority of sacred writings which he might have interpreted erroneously. He stands always upon physical conclusions pertaining to the celestial motions, and deals with them by astronomical and geometrical demonstrations, founded primarily upon sense experiences and very exact observations.  He did not ignore the Bible, but he knew very well that if his doctrine were proved, then it could not contradict the Scriptures when they were rightly understood.

So Galileo is confident that arguments that do not depend in any way upon the authority of sacred writings are not subject to questions about misinterpretation, and further, could not contradict the Scriptures when rightly understood.  So these empirical arguments are more assured than the sacred writings because they bypass hermeneutical questions – first by being independent of sacred writings and then by reaching conclusions which will be reached from the sacred writings when they are properly interpreted.  One might react, “who needs interpretation if you can know the right answer without the text?”

2013