Creation Essentials, Creation Non-Essentials

Part 2: Hermeneutics, Science, and Biblical Authority

 

This section discusses several important hermeneutical considerations, primarily focusing on the relationship between fallible science and fallible Biblical interpretation. We will also discuss a foundational aspect of hermeneutics, original intent, and how much “science” was intended to be gleaned from the Bible. This will be specifically applied to Genesis 1. The overriding principle will be to uphold the authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture.

Biblical Authority

A valid concern of SYECs is that if any part of the Bible is deemed incorrect, then it is all subject to doubt and dispute. We share this concern, as should all evangelicals. Therefore, we oppose any attempt to label anything in Scripture as “wrong”. What is wrong is always one of two things: 1) our interpretation of what the Scripture really means, and/or 2) our interpretation of reality (either through science, experience, intuition, etc.)

The Slippery Slope Fear

The “slippery slope fear” is captured in the following statement: “If you don’t believe that the ‘days’ in Genesis were real days, then why should you believe the ‘3 days’ that Christ was in the tomb are 3 literal days?”. Putting it another way: “If Genesis is not viewed in a literalist manner, then what is stopping us from viewing the resurrection as myth, and the whole Bible as a myth?”

We are called to interpret the Bible as a whole, but also to recognize that it is composed of different types of literature, that it was written by different authors to differing audiences, and that different interpretive approaches are necessary for different parts of the Bible.  Just because one part of the Bible is interpreted figuratively, does not give us license to interpret everything figuratively. So while the “slippery slope” argument can scare some people away for an intense study of a difficult subject, it should not be a reason to shy away from the current debate. The way to avoid the “slippery slope” is to make sure that each section of Scripture is analyzed and interpreted in a manner appropriate for that specific section.

Relation between Biblical interpretation and our pre-suppositions

Some SYECs are fond of labeling their position as the “literal, straight-forward interpretation” or “Biblical fact”, and all others as “compromisers of Biblical authority”, or “anti-Biblical”. Speaking about several prominent Christian leaders who don’t share his views, Ken Ham, as a leading spokesman for the SYEC position, remarks : “…such leaders have let the world seduce them, and thus have compromised the Word of God.”  (See http://www.answersingenesis.org/creation/v19/i3/balaam.asp for the complete article from which this quote and several more in the following section, are taken.) These are strong words that shouldn’t be used lightly nor taken lightly!

Ken also says: “Let’s be honest – if one just reads God’s Word, without any outside influences whatsoever, one would never get the idea anywhere of millions of years. This idea, which contradicts Scripture, comes from outside of it.” [emphasis mine].

            The issue is central to hermeneutics: can we really interpret the Bible “without any outside influences whatsoever?” In the quote above, Ken reflects a worldview that was formalized during the Enlightenment in which a neutral, objective position (free of presuppositions) was thought to exist, from which humans could “get at real truth”. This position requires that fallible man identify and eliminate all pre-suppositions. The truth is that we all (even Ken Ham!) come to the Bible, and all other information sources, with certain presuppositions – the key is to allow Scripture to mold and modify these presuppositions.  This creates a “hermeneutical circle” in which we interpret God’s word, allow it to mold us, interpret God’s word (this time closer to the truth, we hope), and continue the cycle for a life time.  

Relation between Biblical interpretation and “outside influences” such as science

Ken Ham typically contrasts God’s Word with “fallible science” and berates “compromisers” for “telling the church it is ok to interpret the Bible according to the fallible methods of fallible men” (quotes are from the Ham article referenced above.) We agree that all science is fallible. But, we must also recognize that our interpretations of Scripture are also fallible, even though Scripture itself is not fallible. This isn’t to say that all interpretations are equally valid – there are ways to evaluate interpretations, but these processes (collectively called hermeneutics) are all fallible processes that we humans engage in. In fact, good hermeneutics requires that we use “outside influences” such as fallible observation, fallible deduction, and fallible common sense. For example, in determining if a passage is to be interpreted figuratively or not, we must determine if the literalistic sense (the superficial or non-figurative sense) of the passage would lead to a contradiction or absurdity. So, when we read in Proverbs 15:3 that the “eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good”, we use our fallible reasoning to deduce that since God is a spirit, and since we don’t see His eyes everywhere, that therefore the meaning of this passage is to be taken figuratively. The reason commentaries, theologians, and Bible students can classify this passage as “figurative” is because of the application of our fallible human reasoning. This is a simplistic example, so let’s look at a more complicated one.

Prior to the time of Copernicus, the common view was that the earth stood still, and that the sun and stars rotated around it (termed “geo-centricism”). With Copernicus’ fallible observations, bolstered by other fallible scientists such as Galileo, this view was changed to the current view that the earth is in fact not stationary, but that IT rotates around the sun (which in turn rotates around the center of our galaxy, and so on…) However, most of the church at the time was vehemently opposed to such a view. We are told that Martin Luther spoke out against this: “The fool Copernicus wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scriptures tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.” (See http://www.sonlight.com/printer_young_or_old_earth.html for a more complete discussion of this topic, as well as a balanced approach to the entire Creation debate.)

Believe it or not, there is an organization, The Biblical Astronomer, (TBA) that still maintains geo-centricism, based on the “literal, straight-forward” meaning of the Bible. (See http://www.geocentricity.com/whygeocentricity.htm ). Their arguments are very similar to what you will hear from Ken Ham and the Answers in Genesis folks: “…there is not a clue to tell those before Copernicus that Joshua 10:13 is not to be taken literally”. (This sounds very similar to the Ken Ham quote above : “…if one just reads God’s Word, without any outside influences whatsoever, one would never get the idea anywhere of millions of years...”)

 We would agree with the TBA quote which says that there are no clues in the text that Joshua 10:13 is figurative. (To be clear, I am not disputing that God literally extended the length of the day. The question is, did He stop the Sun from moving – as a literal reading of the text would imply, or did he stop the earth from rotating?). However we disagree with this group going the next step and saying that abandoning a geo-centric view of the universe is tantamount to saying that human science is superior to God’s Word. Instead, this is a case where, prior to the fallible scientific observations and deductions of Copernicus and Galileo, it was perfectly reasonable to assume that verses such as Joshua 10:13, Psalm 93:1, and Ecclesiastes 1:5 were literal statements (why would anyone think otherwise?) But, after Copernicus, it was perfectly reasonable to interpret these verses figuratively (using the “language of appearance”, to be precise). Is this shift in interpretation tantamount to placing science over the Bible? No! Is this an example of how fallible science can inform, or even change our fallible interpretation of certain passages of Scripture? Yes.

            This example is well known to the Answers in Genesis folks, because it calls into question one of their primary tenets, which appears on the surface very orthodox and reasonable: that we cannot let fallible science influence our interpretation of Scripture in general, and Genesis 1 in particular. Unfortunately they are not consistent in their restriction of the use of science. Danny Faulkner, writing for Answers in Genesis, indicates that the geo-centric position goes all the way back to ancient Greece , and that the church at the time of Copernicus was actually compromising because it bought into the Greek worldview which included geo-centricism. (See Falulkner’s article: http://answersingenesis.org/home/area/magazines/tj/docs/TJv15n2Geocentrism.asp ). However, this completely skirts the issue, because the real issue is that nobody had a reason to believe anything other than a geo-centric position, based on common sense, the progress of science, and the “literal” reading of the Bible. Danny Faulkner attacks the interpretive methods of modern day geo-centricists, and boldly concludes that the “Bible is neither geocentric nor heliocentric.” I agree with him, but how does he know this? With hindsight, he can now explain the “geo-centric passages” as figurative language, but only by allowing fallible science to modify his interpretation of Scripture!   

Russell Grigg also writes for Answers in Genesis on the topic (see http://answersingenesis.org/creation/v19/i4/galileo.asp ) and makes a correct observation against modern day geo-centricists that “they picked out a few verses from the Bible which they thought said that the sun moved around the earth, but they failed to realize that Bible texts must be understood in terms of what the author intended to convey.” We agree, and will discuss shortly how SYECs are potentially ignoring this dictum when it comes to Genesis 1. He goes on to conclude that “Likewise verses such as Psalm 19:6 and Psalm 93:1, which the writer(s) clearly meant to be poetic expressions, were given a literal meaning” (emphasis mine). Again I ask, how do we know that the writer clearly meant these passages to be “poetic expressions”? Just because a statement is embedded in a passage of poetry does not automatically make it a figurative statement. Griggs also avoids the issue of the account of Joshua and the sun “standing still”, which is embedded in historical narrative, not poetry. I contend that Griggs is unwittingly using science to temper his interpretations of these passages, but not in any way compromising Biblical authority. Both Faulkner and Griggs fail to recognize or acknowledge this because it would severely undermine the SYEC position which attempts to artificially divorce fallible scientific interpretation from fallible Biblical interpretation.  (Note: this opens up a whole new subject, beyond the scope of this paper: what exactly is science? Much of what passes for science, particularly evolutionary science is severely compromised by non-scientific presuppositions against a supreme Being. )

More on science and “literal” Biblical interpretation

The relation between science and Biblical interpretation was addressed in the Chicago Statement* on Biblical Hermeneutics (see http://www.bible-researcher.com/chicago2.html for an annotated version of the statement). Article XX is of interest for this discussion:

WE AFFIRM  that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else. We further affirm that in some cases extra-biblical data have value for clarifying what Scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulty interpretations. (emphasis is mine)

WE DENY  that extrabiblical views ever disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it.

This states clearly that there is a proper role for science (called “extra-biblical data” here) to clarify Scripture, and even to correct faulty interpretations, but not to hold “priority over it”. This position, which reflects the views of a wide array of respected conservative evangelicals, is directly opposed to the SYEC position of divorcing scientific interpretations from Biblical interpretations.

Article XXII in the Chicago Statement affirms that Genesis 1-11 is “factual”, as opposed to mythical. As explained by Norman Geisler in the annotations to the document, the “literal” principle of hermeneutics should be applied to Genesis 1-11, as with all Scripture. The meaning of “literal” interpretation is at times subject to confusion. Article XV indicates that the literal sense is the “normal”, grammatical-historical sense, as opposed to an allegorical or “hidden meaning” sense. The “normal” sense, however, may at times be different from the “face value” or “superficial” sense as it appears to us because of a variety of gaps (language, culture, geography, history) between us and the original writing. In other words, proper Biblical interpretation requires that we take literary, grammatical, and historical context into account to arrive at the single, intended meaning of the author. This intended meaning may be different from the initial “face value” meaning if we do not follow proper grammatical-historical exegesis.  SYEC literature often obscures this definition of literal interpretation when applied to Genesis 1, substituting “face value” or “superficial” instead.

*The Chicago Statement is the product the International Church Council Project (http://churchcoucil.org ), comprised of various evangelical churches and parachurch organizations. It is suggested that the products of this effort reflect solid evangelical theology and scholarship. See also the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (http://churchcouncil.org/ccpdfdocs/01_Biblical%20Inerrancy_A&D.pdf )

Importance of understanding original intended meaning of a Scriptural passage

As mentioned above, the goal of interpreting a text is to arrive at what the author intended to convey (original meaning), not necessarily what it means to us today through our own cultural/historical filters. This will keep us from the grave error of reading too much into the text, making it say what we want it to say, or assuming that the text speaks to a modern way of thinking. (In classic hermeneutics, the task of translating the original meaning of the text to our modern situation is the role of Application, not Interpretation).

For example, in Mark 4:30 -31 Jesus gives the parable of the mustard seed, exclaiming that the mustard seed “is the smallest seed you plant in the ground”. In fact, the mustard seed is not the smallest seed known to botanists, although it was probably the smallest seed known to the Jewish people at that time, and therefore it was a “true” statement (this example comes from Bernard Ramm’s “Protestant Biblical Interpretation”, pg. 211). Certainly Jesus, the creator of the universe, knew of these smaller seeds. To turn this passage into a war over botany, with one group showing proof that there are smaller seeds, and another group clinging to the claim that the mustard seed really was the smallest in some sense of the word, would not only be counter-productive, it would be based on a totally incorrect interpretation of the passage.  The intention of the passage was not to make claims about botany, but about the kingdom of heaven.

Is the Bible a Science Book?

Of course not. Unfortunately, this is a simplistic argument sometimes used in the creation debate (by those opposed to SYEC) to imply that the Bible has nothing to say about scientific matters or that it can’t be trusted with anything other than “salvation”. As stated at the beginning Part 2, the Bible is never wrong about anything, including science. The problem, however, is that passages are often thought to say more about science than they really do. It is certainly wrong to attempt to use science to “prove” that the Bible is errant (this is what atheists and evolutionists try to do). However, using the Bible to make statements about science, when those statements are not intended by the original text, is equally wrong and does a disservice to Scripture and its authority.

The original intention of Genesis

This leads us back to Genesis 1 and something that is often glossed over: what was the original intention, and the original intended meaning, of the creation account in Genesis? Arguing over the science that may or may not be implied in the text, if it was not written with science specifically in mind, would be just like arguing over the botanical implications of Jesus’ mustard seed parable. The following section is partially based on an article by Conrad Hyers written back in 1984 (see http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1984/JASA9-84Hyers.html). I don’t agree with everything he says, and will indicate this below.  

Interpretations which attempt to draw out scientific details of creation from Genesis are essentially modernistic in their approach, reading modern-day scientific and technological concerns into the text.  A truly conservative approach would seek to conserve the original conception and concern of the biblical text, not measure and test it by contemporary standards. As the first book of the Pentateuch, the original audience for Genesis would have been the ancient Hebrews. The “debate of the day” back then was not creation vs. evolution, or 6-day creation vs. long-age creation: the central issue was polytheism versus monotheism. This theme literally permeates the Old Testament (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”, Deut 6:4; “You shall have no other gods before me”, Ex 20:3 – the first of the 10 Commandments). The text in Genesis 1 directly attacks the belief system of the ancient world which elevated nature to the status of the divine and which worshiped a pantheon of gods. Genesis dismantles the sky gods, water gods, forest gods, etc. God, whose name is Yahweh, alone created these elements.  We also see that Yahweh is wholly different from the creation as opposed to pantheistic worldviews in which God and the universe are one and the same. Thus Genesis 1 is first and foremost a cosmogony answering the following questions: where did the gods come from (in this case, the one true God, Yahweh, who always was and is); and what is the relationship between the gods and the world we can see (in this case, a Creator-creation relationship).

While we find that Hyers’ analysis of the original intended message of Genesis to the Hebrews is compelling, we disagree with him when he goes on to conclude that NO scientific conclusions should be drawn from the Genesis account. In this sense, he is removing the account from space-time and essentially treating it as myth (this is how theistic evolutionists typically attempt to correlate their scientific beliefs with Genesis.) This is in radical departure from the hermeneutical principles we have outlined above in which Genesis is assumed to be factual (i.e. that it represents events that actually happened). Yes, Genesis 1 provides a rough framework for the creation of the universe, but not for the purposes of explaining the scientific details of creation to a culture 4000 years in the future. Drawing detailed, modern, scientific theories (such as creation science, progressive creation, or theistic evolution) based on the text of Genesis is not in keeping with the original intended meaning of the text.

Conclusion of Part 2

We have shown that in an attempt to maintain the authority of Scripture (a noble task), the SYEC position incorrectly and inconsistently restricts the use of science in Biblical interpretation. We see that although Scripture holds priority, our fallible interpretations of Scripture may be tempered by “fallible interpretations of science”. So rather than being “compromisers”, as SYEC proponents are fond of saying, many of those who have differing interpretations of Genesis are strongly committed to upholding the authority of the Bible. We have also seen that while the Bible is correct in all of its statements, it is vital to not read more into the text than was originally intended. This has particular consequences for the Genesis 1 account which was written to equip the ancient Hebrews against the polytheistic cultures of the day.

             NEXT : Creation Exegetical Concerns  >> 

 


Young Earth Creationism. Old Earth Creationism. Was there Death before the Fall? What is the relation between Science and the Bible? Do they ever conflict? Can science help us interpret the Bible? What was the original intended meaning of Genesis 1?