[Appended 4 July 2008: Since writing the article below, I have changed my thinking on certain aspects of it. Please read the associated comments for a fuller picture.]
I used to believe in the six-day creation account, in the Garden of Eden, in Adam and Eve, the serpent, the eating of fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Having read the Bible carefully, I was pretty sure that the original writer of Genesis intended the work to understood in a literal, historical fashion. That much is clear by the manner in which it’s written. Genesis is, after all, the history of man, and it starts with the first man, Adam, who I’m clearly supposed to believe was a real person. This view is further supported by the fact that the rest of the Bible puts on display several genealogies that go right back to Adam.
But I had a problem. And that problem was the pressure of scientific thought. The Bible says man wasn’t subject to death until after the Fall. Can you imagine what would have happened if man hadn’t fallen. Can you imagine man, an immortal being, making babies (who make further babies) ad infinitum, in the confined space of the Earth? And that’s just problem 1. The concept of death hasn’t been invented, but you have physical beings dependent on air to breathe, so what happens if you hold your head under the lake? Why does a lion have such big claws, if not to tear up his prey? Why does a hedgehog possess the ability to curl into a ball and project protective spines? Why does a sporpion have a sting? What would happen if a scorpion stung an immortal human? Christian scientists have made attempts to marry the first chapters of Genesis with what we know to be true from science, but the results aren’t convincing.
So, as a Christian, what did I do? I compromised. I said, “I know it couldn’t really have happened like this, so I’ll say it’s some kind of allegory. Something (I don’t know exactly what) happened. Mankind fell from grace. Death and sin resulted. The world is the way it is today because of that.” At the time, this seemed like an honest reasoning process. But is it? No! It’s a prime example of exactly the kind of attitude that I’ve been arguing against in all my recent posts.
Here’s the underlying truth of what really went on in my mind: I read the creation account and I interpreted it in a way that seemed correct (that I was reading historical narrative). I then came to a scientific understanding of the matter, and I found the two “realities” to be incongruous. I then said, “The literal interpretation must be wrong, so I’ll change it to allegory.”
Do you see what I did? I did exactly what I cautioned myself against doing in the previous post (regarding the interpretation of the “sons of God”). I applied a rigid set of existing beliefs (scientific ones this time) to the interpretation of Genesis and I allowed those beliefs to change the meaning of something that was perfectly clear and plain. I’m only now starting to see the intellectual dishonesty of this kind of thinking.
We all have beliefs of one kind or another. And when we encounter new information that conflicts with those beliefs, the solution is not to twist the new information into submission. The solution is to examine both the new information and the existing beliefs and determine which needs to change. The big problem arises when a belief becomes more than a belief – when it becomes an unshakeable treasured possession that must never be tampered with. This is especially true of religious thinking (what with the importance of dogma), but is also true of the scientifically motivated (as has been evidenced by recent comments).
I now have a new-found respect for those Christians who doggedly hang onto the literal creation account, despite the pressure of scientific evidence. At least they’ve chosen their side. What I’m losing my respect for is the mentality (in myself) that is prepared to hang on to some watered-down version that tries to join two sides of an argument into an ill-fitting monstrosity. It’s like saying Frankenstein was handsome.
Now that I’m refusing to come at things with a personal agenda, I can see the matter more clearly. Genesis 1-3 says one thing, science is saying another, and ne’re the twain shall meet. Answer: Pick the one you think is true.
Now that leaves me in one hell of a predicament. Easier said than done. Because I do have a rigid belief system. And the side of the argument that is calling out to me is the side that threatens to put a major crack right up through the centre of those beliefs. This is where I reveal a little of the cowardice of “Reaction 2” from the previous post: “Maybe something’s missing from the way I’m looking at this. Why don’t I just shelve it for now. Good idea. Whew!” One thing’s for sure: a decision will not be put off indefinitely.
I’ve seen many example of personal agenda being brought to bear on Bible interpretation. More than I can remember. The one example that sticks out in my mind is when I heard someone preach on Genesis 1:16. In context:
 Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years;
 and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so.
 God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also.
I’ve heard the words “He made the stars also” interpreted to mean that the creation of the whole universe beyond Earth was like a mere afterthought in the mind of God. The intent is for us to marvel that God would do something so big and complex as a mere afterthought. But an additional side-effect of this interpretation is that we create the mindset that those 200 billion stars in each of those 200 billion galaxies are unimportant and irrelevant. A convenient way to unwittingly encourage the view of reality that says there is no life out there. When, oh when, will preachers stop inventing their own flowery interpretations of Scripture and actually start communicating what the Bible is saying instead of what they want it to say. Look out for this tendency to over-interpret next time you’re in church, because it’s everywhere. And it’s one of the main reasons I can’t stomach church anymore. It’s the subtle difference between “Look what I can make it say” and “Here is what it says.”
In your own quest for truth, learn to drop your personal agendas and let a thing say what it’s trying to say.
19 thoughts on “Bible (mis)interpretation and personal agenda”
I think this latest post is further evidence to support my earlier hypothesis that you’re thinking still under the shadow of fundamentalist Biblical literalism. Moreover, you’re really starting to concern me. It does not seem as though you are thinking things through carefully and clearly, in light of ALL the facts.
“Now that I’m refusing to come at things with a personal agenda, I can see the matter more clearly. Genesis 1-3 says one thing, science is saying another, and ne’re the twain shall meet. Answer: Pick the one you think is true.”
Why does it have to be one or the other? Why does faith have to contradict reason?
“This is where I reveal a little of the cowardice of “Reaction 2″ from the previous post: “Maybe something’s missing from the way I’m looking at this. Why don’t I just shelve it for now. Good idea. Whew!” One thing’s for sure: a decision will not be put off indefinitely.”
I think a modified form of your “Reaction 2” is perfectly acceptable. It is right and reasonable to realize your own knowledge on a matter has limits, and to therefore not jump to a conclusion. I don’t know why you think that’s a bad thing. The implication in your “Reaction 2” that, once a lack of knowledge is realized, you can then sit back in relief that you don’t have to consider the matter anymore is, I agree, cowardly. But to NOT realize that you don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle, and to come to a conclusion regardless, is, quite frankly, reckless, stupid, and irresponsible.
Genesis 1-3 is not a literal, scientific account of how God created the heavens and the earth. It’s a narrative for people of another culture, another place in time, to explain to them that it was God who created the heavens and the earth, that it was God who brought mankind out of the dust and breathed a soul into him, that it was Man who disobeyed God and inherited death for us all.
I don’t accept that the findings of science (i.e., the age of the universe, the study of natural processes which form stars, planets, mountains, etc..) have to force us into a blinkered view of reality just because the words of Genesis 1-3 seem to be teaching a different methodology. I’m not saying that the account of Genesis 1-3 is impossible (nothing is impossible for God), but it is wrong to proceed with the assumption that science and the Bible are diametrically opposed to one another.
Augustine and Aquinas wrote at length on the relationship between faith and reason. I suggest you go dig up their writings and have a read before you go completely off the deep end here.
“In your own quest for truth, learn to drop your personal agendas and let a thing say what it’s trying to say.”
I don’t believe that you are operating without personal agenda. It’s quite clear your agenda is to take passages from the Bible and make them stand on all fours, regardless of anything else. You are too easily dismissing the other sides of the argument. Christians have been considering these texts of the Bible for two thousand years, and still the matter is open for debate. I find it somewhat worrying that you’re trying to nicely solve the matter, plain and simple. It’s not as plain and simple as you are making it.
My apologies if this comment seems a bit curt. I’m always writing under a time constraint, so it’s not easy to always come across in a friendly way.
I’ve heard the words “He made the stars also” interpreted to mean that the creation of the whole universe beyond Earth was like a mere afterthought in the mind of God. The intent is for us to marvel that God would do something so big and complex as a mere afterthought.
Agreeing with what you say, and expanding your reasoning, it follows that an afterthought, which is something that one hadn’t thought of before, is only a human thought process.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to go right off the rails. I intend to do a little fence-sitting first before I jump. 🙂
Your point about the creation account not being a scientific textbook is well taken. From that perspective, the six-day creation account may have been a suitable “myth” (ouch) to tell people, getting across the main truth of God being the one ultimately responsible for the existence of all.
It’s just unfortunate that, as the centuries went by and science became more knowledgable, we Christians (I’m guessing) started off by going, “Heresy!” then eventually, under pressure of evidence, got around to saying, “Er, maybe we need to re-think what’s been written in our Book, guys.”
As a Christian, I hate having to be in the position where science gets to say, “Ha. Look. You’re wrong.” Then we have to turn around and do a sort of under-the-table reorganisation of our material in order to preserve a measure of dignity. You almost feel like you’re sneakily trying to get away with something.
I haven’t made my mind up, but the non-literal acceptance of Genesis 1-3 is something that is obviously sitting more strongly in your mind than in mine.
Who says anyone needs to accept anything? Oh, well… apart from those that want everyone catagorised and filed for easier assimilation into their own philosophies.
Truth is someone will come up with proof that contradicts whatever you believe in at some point, which will in turn be contradicted by some other “truth” later.
The whole thing about keeping an open mind is that you permanently have to keep it open as there will be no end to new ways of thinking.
Keeps things fresh I find, even if it is rather maddening.
I’m currently doing a BSc (Hons) in Mathematics, and am working on a BSc in Astrophysics (in addition to other stuff, but sleep is for the weak) If anything, I am more in awe of God’s Creation now than I was before I took up study. There is a lot of research to support a young universe, or at least credible hypotheses. I know a Professor of Physics and Cosmology where I live who is doing really interesting research into the effect on C when you subject it to a gravity well..his results are interesting indeed, and would explain how a photon that started 2 billion ‘light years’ away could arrive here in, well, less than 2 billion years 🙂 Indeed, his research is pointing towards C not being a constant at all, but a function of local real and n space conditions.
Anyway, getting slightly off the track, but I wouldn’t be too swift to scoff at the Genesis account of creation; just because current scientific thought would seem to stand in opposition to the Genesis account does not automatically mean that Genesis is wrong. Yes, the writers of the penteteuch had no concept of cosmology (although that in itself is arguable…look at the ‘technology’ of the Egyptians, Aztecs and other ancient cultures,) but either the Bible is inspired by God, or it isn’t. I have no issues accepting that it is the inspired word.
…those people that burned their Bibles, in the 17th Century, when it didn’t mention Phlogiston, feel pretty silly now, I’m betting.
“If anything, I am more in awe of God’s Creation now than I was before I took up study. There is a lot of research to support a young universe, or at least credible hypotheses. I know a Professor of Physics and Cosmology where I live who is doing really interesting research into the effect on C when you subject it to a gravity well..his results are interesting indeed, and would explain how a photon that started 2 billion ‘light years’ away could arrive here in, well, less than 2 billion years Indeed, his research is pointing towards C not being a constant at all, but a function of local real and n space conditions.
Anyway, getting slightly off the track, but I wouldn’t be too swift to scoff at the Genesis account of creation; just because current scientific thought would seem to stand in opposition to the Genesis account does not automatically mean that Genesis is wrong.”
For lots more information on the Genesis account of creation from scientists who are christians, you should check out the following site:
I read something about the gravity well you speak of on their site just last night. Besides that, they have a wealth of other interesting articles.
It’s a fair point that science is never set in stone. And current “facts” may well be based on misconceptions that we haven’t yet detected.
I’m reminded of how we once assumed time to be a constant, until some experiments were done that demonstrated how time had elasticity, that it moved quicker and slower depending on factors like speed and gravity. Suddenly every conclusion on every subejct where time was a factor needs re-examined.
But we can either take the current knowledge we have and compare it with the Bible, or we can choose to say the comparison is invalid on the basis that the Bible is the inspired word and must therefore be right.
I don’t think it’s that black and white. Especially since we have to rely on science to give the Bible its place as a credible historical document.
Given, then, that we owe science a little respect, a marriage of a literal interpretation of the Genesis account with current scientific knowledge just seems a little untenable. The choice, for me at least, is either to interpret it non-literally or to deny its validity.
Indeed, but there is a danger in undermining, at least in your own eyes, the validity of Genesis…almost every facet of Christian doctrinal stance has its underpinnings in Genesis. The danger is that if you take portions and say “They are not literal, they are just representative of, blah blah”, where does it stop? Was the flood an event? Was the virgin birth, the resurrection? Chipping away at the foundations is a dangerous path to take, as the rest of it has nothing to support it, other than some nebulous ‘belief’ in God. I could cut and prune at bits of the Word that don’t fit my own understanding, or assumptions, and easily come to the conclusion that God is a Cosmic Chicken. Count the numbers of cults and sects that have arisen based on a phrase, or paragraph of the Bible.
I think it -is- that black and white, to be honest. Let’s have a quick look at your concerns from your original post:
“But I had a problem. And that problem was the pressure of scientific thought. The Bible says man wasn’t subject to death until after the Fall. Can you imagine what would have happened if man hadn’t fallen. Can you imagine man, an immortal being, making babies (who make further babies) ad infinitum, in the confined space of the Earth? And that’s just problem 1. ”
Oh? As I read it Man was never meant to be immortal, at least in a physical sense. Immortality was the prize behind Tree number 2 (The tree of life) Sure, Man was designed to live a heck of a lot longer than we do now, but there are whole books of thought as to what happened to change that, and why the age span diminished over time.
“The concept of death hasn’t been invented, but you have physical beings dependent on air to breathe, so what happens if you hold your head under the lake? ”
Where do you read that there was no death? There was no sin in the world, and corruption certainly followed the fall, but I think it is a bit far to assume there was no death. I know a lot of creationists look to Isaiah and his description of the healed world (lion with calf, wolf lamb, etc) and point to this is being there will be no more creatures killing each other, but it is certainly not the only stance.
“Why does a lion have such big claws, if not to tear up his prey? Why does a hedgehog possess the ability to curl into a ball and project protective spines? Why does a sporpion have a sting?”
Why not? I don’t see the world as being some sort of hippie nirvana. I can’t see from scripture where the idea that before the fall everything was definitely vegetarian came from. Again, Isaiah points to how things will be, and folks relate this as a return to ‘Eden’ conditions, but again it is only one view. Gen 1:29 speaks of God saying that all seed bearing plants are for humans, and all green plants are for the animals, but I don’t see “And this is all you shall eat, for to eat of flesh is forbidden. m’kay” Again, there are differing arguments on this, as I am sure you’re aware. Heck, the ‘church’ argued over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin for a century, if some accounts are to be believed
“What would happen if a scorpion stung an immortal human?”
I would guess they would die. being immortal wouldn’t remove consequence from your life. If you are destroyed in a fire, then, well, you’re toast. Do I know for sure? Nope. Does free of corruption (pre-fall) mean that you don’t age physically? No idea.
Ultimately, there are always going to be questions, and not all of them are going to have answers that are readily available…that isn’t the same as not having answers, though, necessarily. To look at the ‘scientific facts’ make a determination that on the basis of those ‘facts’ there is error in scripture, so it should just be junked, is a pretty limited way to look at things 🙂 Especially given that the ‘facts’ are likely to change a dozen times in the next 500 years. Newtonian physics is good, but limited. einsteinian physics is better, in certain narrow areas, but still not complete. Hawking physics are better in singularity based environments, and the others fall apart. Do either of the three broad approaches deal with ‘truth’? Not really, as there is research going on that may well trash them all. Did the Big bang happen? Not if you are a follower of the ‘Plasma Universe’ chain of thought. At the time these thoughts were released to scrutiny, though, they were hailed as the ultimate truth.
Is there a definitive ‘answer’ Yes, but probably not until you shuffle off your mortal coil. Do I have the answer? Not yet, and as I get older I realise that I am finally starting to understand what questions to ask 🙂 Should we search for the answers? Of course.
Anyway, back to studying.
That’s as good a defence for Genesis 1-3 as I’ve ever heard. Your first paragraph clarifies (in a way that I was vaguely aware of but couldn’t quite crystalise) why Chris’s view of a non-literal interpretation of Genesis doesn’t sit well with me.
The rest of your comment is basically a challenge for me not to add two and two together and make five. I have to remember I’m reading brief snippets of information about a period in man’s history that we know so little about. And I may be guilty indeed of working on some faulty assumptions about that brief period of “immortality.”
Ultimately, you’re saying I shouldn’t be as conclusive as I’m being on this matter. And you’re right. I had built something up in my mind to the point of almost fairytale absurdity, whereas too much is unknown about it to make such a judgment.
I still feel that tension between science and Genesis 1-3, but you’ve given my stance a much needed reality check.
Hiya Earl, I’ve spoken to Ken Ham a couple of times, and the folks from AIG and Creation Ex Hihlo (as it used to be called). The church I’m a member of is a pretty regular stop for them when they pass through Western Australia. He’s a good guy; can’t say I agree with everything he says, but that is fine also…spirited debate is always better than boring mindless acceptance.
Darryl, my world is full of physics and esoteric math, and my friends, the ones that are not teachers, are engineers. I lecture in physics occasionally at my university. I’m not a good apologeticist, as I loathe ‘Humanities’ based communication (give me a board of math any day; at least there is ‘truth’ there) What I would say is that sometimes we can get so blinded by the search for ‘truth’ that we fall into our own trap, endlessly cycling round and round until the questions are forgotten, and only the flaws remain. Yes, it seems that in certain areas there are modes of scientific thought that are at odds with scripture. Ok 🙂 That doesn’t mean that scripture is wrong, (or, for that matter that the science is wrong), but there is an assumption that they are both expressions of ‘truth’ and are diametrically opposed, and I would propose that a lot of what we deem scientific fact is certainly not truth, just our best reckoning with the data at hand. It isn’t the first time, and won’t be the last.
Yes, we should always have an enquiring mind, but there comes a point when you need to say to yourself “I don’t have the information to proceed along this path with any degree of finality, so these are the undeniable truths for me; Christ was born of a virgin birth wholly God and wholly man, died for our sins at Calvary and was raised on the third day, and faith in him is my Salvation.” The rest is just stuff. Life is complicated enough 🙂
Cosmology is being thrown into disarray currently because of research that postulates that the sun, below a thin skin of plasma, has a solid crust, like a planet. You should hear the screams of HERESY! over that one…
That’s interesting about the sun, but more to the point, have they yet determined from what variety of cheese the moon is made?
By … the way, what aspects of the Genesis account of creation do you have problems with? Is it to do with God creating the world in six days? For in Genesis 1 where the word day is used, it is preceded or followed by a qualifier i.e. the evening and the morning were the first day, etc. Now, if this doesn’t relate to a 24 hour day, then what is this evening and morning? Moreover, it also makes a clear distinction between day and year in verse 14, so it may be interesting to see if both occurrences of the word day are the same in Hebrew. If in a single passage, the word day has multiple meanings, then how are you to know what is meant at any given time. The same can be said regarding the words evening and morning, for they, too, would have to mean something else than what we understand.
Furthermore, a qualifier is used to clarify something, so if day meant anything else wouldn’t there be a different qualifier?
Without wanting to go into detail, I guess I have a problem with the six “literal” days of creation, the specific ordering of events, the “young earth” hypothesis, and elements of the Garden of Eden narrative. I would have to examine it all again carefully, in light of Andrew’s very valid point.
I completely agree with the claim that the bible needs to be taken as literal truth. Andrew starts to get at why the Bible must be interpreted literally with his slippery slope argument, “where does it stop? Was the flood an event? Was the virgin birth, the resurrection?” He stops one step too short though and misses one critical point. If we are to interpret the bible allegorically in some places and not others, it means that the revealed word of God (the Bible) is not authoritatively true. Allegorical interpretation of the Bible implies a source of truth outside of the bible, namely the person doing the allegorical interpretation. If even one piece of the bible is determined to be true only allegorically, then no piece of the bible can be cited as truth because it is the word of God. Allegorical interpretation undermines all authority of the word of God. See the article I wrote on this subject at http://the-worldiknow.blogspot.com/2008/07/fundamentally-speaking-theyve-got-this.html
In a general sense, I agree with what you’re saying, but a close reading of your article makes me confused. You appear to be saying that parables should be taken as literal, which is rather odd. Jesus isn’t a literal vine, as you pointed out, and then proceeded to criticise – huh?
Your article misses an important aspect of the issue, which is the Hebrews’ use of language. In the Old Testament you will sometimes find a sort of poetic language that is quite alien to us. For instance, in Psalm 114:4 we read “The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.” Clearly not literal, but not the type of metaphor we would write today.
Likewise, in a book like Revelation, are we supposed to take it all literally? I would suggest not, especially with the prevalence of certain numbers, like “7.” Understand what “7” signified and we may start to understand what the book is saying. But the Bible literalists will insist on seeing a literal 7-year tribulation.
You are right to criticise the people who try to debunk the Flood and the virgin birth, etc. But strict Biblical literalism will also lead you astray. The right path is to learn how the ancient languages functioned and to interpret everything within its context.
As I’ve been pointing out, most problems are created because people want to believe one thing or another, and they will hang onto any erroneous principles that lead them where they want to go.
If someone doesn’t want to believe the Flood happened, it will be hard to get him to re-evaluate the principles that led him to that conclusion. But consider also the literalist who has built up a complex end-time prophecy based around current events and things he sees in Revelation. I think it will be very hard to get him to examine whether his “literalism” is the correct method of interpreting that particular book of the Bible.
People get too attached to their desires, in my opinon. Me, I just don’t care. And I think that puts me in the best position to reach the actual objective truth of a matter.
It may be true that the Hebrews used poetic language that is alien to modern readers. The idea that mountains skip like rams and hills like lambs is pretty strange. But, so are virgin birth, resurrection and walking on water. In my own life I have experienced each of these things zero times. The point is, in 50 years some scholar might come out and say that Aramaic is a metaphorical language and the whole Jesus thing never happened. Son of God? that’s just 2000 year old lingo for being a really cool cat. thou shall not kill? a metaphor prohibiting taking the last bit of pizza at dinner. See what I’m saying? If you use reason to make these assessments, you undermine the authority of the Psalms and Gospels alike as the revealed word of God.
“If you use reason to make these assessments, you undermine the authority of the Psalms and Gospels alike as the revealed word of God.”
This is ridiculous. How can you give up on “reason” itself? What are you left with?
Take this example, in plain English: “His eyes travelled down the front of her dress.” Now, did his eyes literally go across the room to the girl, and literally roll down the front of her dress? I think not. Because it’s not a literal statement. And the application of a little common sense allows you to understand it.
So did the mountains skip like rams? Of course they didn’t. Taken in context, the author clearly wasn’t writing about some strange supernatural event.
Your denial of metaphor and poetic language is going to take you just as far away from the truth as those who insist there was no Flood.
I guess I don’t know what to say that wouldn’t just be repeating myself. Many people will say that the flood didn’t actually happen (life as we know it now is too diverse to sit on a relatively small boat for 40 days) or that the sun didn’t actually stop to give Israel more time to fight (please enroll yourself in a physics class) or that Adam and Eve didn’t spawn all of human kind (think about the diversity of human races and the health conditions associated with inbreeding) or (insert favorite implausible bible story) . If we accept that those things didn’t ACTUALLY happen but are allegory for something else than we lose the power to say that Christ ACTUALLY was the son of God and ACTUALLY did rise and can ACTUALLY hear the mumblings in our heads.
I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall here, Brandon. The reason why the Flood is a literal event is not because of some all-encompassing “everything must be literal” principle, as you seem to think. It’s a literal event because the Book of Genesis is a historical narrative, as is clear by reading it as a whole. So, taken in that context, the Flood was clearly supposed to have happened as a real event.
Whether it really did happen is another matter. But clearly the author of Genesis intended it to be understood as something that actually happened. You like to mix the scientific provability of these things into the same question, but that’s another matter entirely. We’re not asking “Did these things really happen?” but “Is the author asserting that these things happened?” We’re trying to understand him correctly, not prove his assertions right or wrong. So let’s not mix the two questions into one, please.
Your “literal absolutist” thinking is overly simplistic and it’s making you cling to an irrational view of the Bible. In no way does my thinking give me the license to interpret any part of the Bible any way I please. There are sensible, rational principles to follow.
For further study: