Context is Key (RJS)

Ted Davis, Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College, had an excellent post on the BioLogos Forum this week. Professor Davis is a senior Fellow for BioLogos and writes for the Forum approximately every other week. All of his posts are worth reading, but this one struck me as particularly relevant to many of the discussions we have here.

Science and the Bible: The Framework View.

When I explain this position to students, I like to start with a little puzzle. Many years ago, after attending an academic conference in a major city, I was driving through the rural countryside some distance away, en route to an historic house that wasn’t well marked. As I got closer to where I thought I might start seeing some signs directing me to the house, I noticed a fair-sized hotel, restaurant, and bar off to one side of the road. What really caught my attention was a sign, prominently displayed at the start of the driveway, warning off a certain clientele: NO FOOTBALL COACHES, it said. Unfortunately I’d forgotten my camera, but this is pretty much what I saw.

When I show it in class, I ask the students to guess what this was all about: why such a sign outside of such a place? The stories they come up with are pretty good. My favorite involves two neighboring high schools, arch rivals, with the football coach at one having an affair with the wife of his opposite number, resulting in fist-fights in that bar every fall, when friends of one man or the other would go at each other in the bar, which was on the highway connecting the two school districts. After a few students have tried their luck to no avail, someone asks, where did this take place? Was it maybe in England, where football means soccer and coach means bus? Give that student an A, I say. It was England, on a highway running between York and Manchester. Now, who can fill in the blanks? Almost right away, a student will explain that soccer fans in England can be pretty rambunctious, and that a busload of them might not make the best impression on the rest of the clientele at a respectable country inn and pub. Thus, the manager would rather not have their business.

The take-away message, of course, is that there is always a context in which the meaning of a text is embedded. Unless you know something about the time and place in which a text is composed, you aren’t going understand what it actually says. The same is true for any part of the Bible, including the opening verses of Genesis. That’s the bottom line for the Framework View: if you don’t know anything about literature and culture in the Ancient Near East, you won’t understand what Genesis is really saying.

In his post Ted Davis goes on to describe the Framework View of Genesis. I suggest that those interested read his post carefully. You can also learn more about the view in The Genesis Debate : Three Views on the Days of Creation or listen to Lee Irons describe it in The Days of Genesis available from the Veritas Forum.  I first learned of the framework view through this Veritas Forum Lecture.

Very briefly, in the framework theory the days of Genesis 1 refer by analogy to God’s work and the account in Genesis is a literary framework describing God’s work in creation, not a literal account.  This is similar to an analogical day theory that God created the world in six days of work followed by one day of rest – but these days of divine work are an analogy rather than an identity with days of human work. The distinctions between the framework and analogical day approaches are subtle, both see the days a a literary framework rather than literal 24 hour days. Vern Poythress of Westminster Theological Seminary (not a liberal interpreter of scripture by any means) favors these two views in his book Redeeming Science.

Context is the key. Scripture is understood most completely when the context in which it was written is understood. John Walton in his book The Lost World of Genesis One makes the same point. We live something like 2500 to 3500 years after Genesis was written, in a very different culture with a very different approach to science, and different literary conventions. Anyone can read Genesis and get the fundamental messages about God as creator, the failings of mankind, and the mission of God in covenant with his people. But for the detailed context that fleshes out the whole we need more knowledge, and we need faithful biblical scholars, historians, and teachers. The framework view, analogical days, temple symbolism, emphasis on function rather than matter, the appropriation of ancient cosmology – all of these are attempts, invaluable efforts, to get at the context of the text so that we can better understand the meaning and message.

Context is the key for more than Genesis though, it is part of the key for understanding the whole sweep of scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Some of this context comes from scripture itself, from reading the whole story in large chunks – and more than once. Some comes from a knowledge of the languages and the surrounding cultures. Again we need faithful biblical scholars in conversation with each other and with the church.

And the “problems” in scripture involve more than just creation. Here we can change gears a little and bring into the discussion another common “problem” raised concerning scripture. Pete Enns put up a post earlier this week with the pithy title And Brief (and let’s hope final, but If I know me probably not) Comment on God’s Violence in the Old Testament. The problem of violence in the conquest of Canaan is one that crops of repeatedly. The issues are seen most clearly in Joshua, but also earlier in the Pentateuch, later in Judges, and even to an extent in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.  In Joshua God commands his people to remain separate, to annihilate the inhabitants of Canaan as they conquer it. In the prophets God’s anger burns against his people, largely because they fail to love God and love others. They take other gods, they follow the Ba’als and set up Asherah poles over, and over, and over again. They fail to care for the widows and orphans and the poor, the rulers and leaders oppress the people, over and over, and over again.

Pete asks, and I think this is a good question to consider as well:

Do these episodes of violence tell us what God is like or is the picture of God in the Old Testament mediated for us through ancient tribal culture the Israelites and their neighbors participated in?

Context again, perhaps context is key. What do we need to know about the context to properly understand the meaning of these texts to the original audience, and thus the meaning they should hold for us today? Pete also asks if “the gospel affects, one way or the other, how we answer this question?” I don’t claim to have a complete answer to the questions of violence in the Old Testament, or the depiction of God as violent and wrathful. But in the context of the whole sweep of scripture, along with the insight that it is likely that much of what we have in scripture is shaped and edited in the context of the exile, I don’t find the “violence” as troubling as I did in the past. I also think that we should be interpreting the Old Testament through the lens Jesus provided according to Matthew:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Mt 22:36-40)

I don’t see a violent God in the Law and the Prophets as much as a God who expects his law to be obeyed. And it is likely, I think, that the form this message takes is shaped by the context of the culture into which God spoke through his prophets. Some of the language and tenor of description may be the result of a literary form and approach unfamiliar in our time and culture. Prophetic language is not always simple and does not always reflect literal reporting. I put no stake in the ground here, but open it up for discussion.

The Old Testament is a complex piece of literature, comprised of many forms and genres, written into different contexts and edited and compiled into the form we have to day in the canon accepted by the church. This is the word of God, able to make us wise for salvation, useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that we are equipped for every good work … as Paul told Timothy. But the fact that the scriptures are “God-breathed” does not mean that they are simple, with a message that can be understood completely thousands of years later without effort or without teachers.

How important is context to a proper understanding of scripture?

What role does context play in understanding the Old Testament?

Are the issues any different in the New Testament? If so, how?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • J.L. Schafer

    RJS, thanks for this post. I am very sympathetic to the notion that context is key. Studying Scripture in context opens up great possibilities for understanding how God worked through history.I think this is part of what it means to stay focused on the whole sweep of Scriprture, as NT Wright has said.

    And yet, I cannot deny that Christians throughout the ages have used Scripture in all sorts of non-contextual (and often contradictory) ways and have been blessed through that process. Each community that immerses itself in Scripture tends to draw out things that can be useful for the local community context, even if those understandings are later rebutted and rejected by other communities whose contexts are different. And the authors of the NT often used the OT in non-contextual ways to point to Jesus. To me, “God breathed” suggests that Scripture is a living system that continually adapts itself to new contexts.

    Regarding the violence in the OT: Perhaps you have seen the two recent sermons by Greg Boyd that tackle this problem head-on in a fresh way. If not, please check them out if and when you get a chance. You won’t be disappointed. Part 1 is here,

    http://whchurch.org/sermons-media/sermon/gods-shadow-activity

    and part 2 is here:

    http://whchurch.org/sermons-media/sermon/shadow-of-the-cross

  • http://whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog Andrew Wilson

    Great piece. The question you quote from Pete Enns, though, is surely presenting a chunky false dichotomy: do these episodes tell us what God is like, or is the picture of God mediated through ancient tribal culture? I can’t see how the answer, as with the rest of biblical revelation about God, could be anything other than “both” …

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    A potential problem emerges as you tear into how little we may know at some points about an ancient context. If context is key to interpretation, how do we know if the context by which we view the scripture actually has all the details in mind? Lacking an idea here or there may wildly throw off our understanding of what’s being said.

    So too, what shall we say when there are disagreements between scholars about the proper understanding of an ancient culture? Is there any authoritative reading anymore? I’m not seeking to poke holes. I believe the post has great things to say, but the problems of interpretation and epistemology are significant, and their solutions are by no means obvious.

    Once we take a step like RJS’s here, all kinds of a new and difficult questions coming rushing forward.

  • peteenns

    Andrew,

    Great response! But the next step involves explaining how the “both” works itself out when we get to the details. That is where the tensions between these two poles quickly surface and why the issue keeps coming up. In my experience, typically, readers eventually collapse more to one side or the other. For conservatives, I have seen how easy it is to assert in principle the cultural pole but then in practice minimize or subordinate it under doctrinal considerations (not that you are necessarily suggesting such a thing).

    So, with respect to God’s violence, the question can be put this way: “What are learning about what God is really like (the one pole) by how he behaves toward Canaanites or Midianites–killing everyone, dividing virgins among conquerers–in view of how that portrait of God is mediated to us through the ancient tribal culture (the other pole)?” How those two work together is important to work out, not simply for scholars but for high school and college students.

  • phil_style

    @JL Schafer, thanks for the links to Greg’s podcast. I’m only 15 minutes in to part one, and nearly weeping already!

  • Bev Mitchell

    This is a wonderfully helpful illustration that makes the unavoidable importance of context crystal clear. 

    For any complex body of literature, written, edited and assembled over a thousand year period and read 2500-3500 years in the future by people whose cultures have undergone massive changes, this point should be understood by all. It should virtually be a truism. Yet, for the Holy Bible this is often not the case. We want it to be written directly to us, in our time, without fail. We want it to have come directly from the hand of the Lord. We don’t want to know about any editing process, any alternative presentations by competing points of view within its pages, any inconsistencies. We really don’t want to see human influence anywhere that could obscure in any way what God has to say to us. In short, we are deathly afraid of acknowledging any such human stain on Scripture.

    With this mindset and energized by this fear, we are capable of the most amazing feats of ignoring the obvious, or invention of incredible circumlocutions to explain away things that cannot be ignored. We are barely able to accept that our preferred interpretations of Scripture have at least some human elements that may miss some small point. But when it comes to Scripture, we cannot see how God would allow mere humans to present different points if view, edit, rearrange or otherwise tarnish his written word to us. 

    Yet, Scripture reveals ancient humans struggling to understanding God as much as it reveals God. We see real people not only trying to understand who God is but who they themselves are. They are also asking how God relates to us, what he expects of us, how he will deal with our shortcomings, how he will help us become more like him. No honest presentation of such a magnificent human quest could be a straight forward, confusion free revelation from God regarding these essential questions. Yes, the Bible is God’s word to us, but this word is presented within the context of our largely unsteady, often reluctant always groping response to him. We must see and happily acknowledge that the very human side of Scripture is an essential part of God’s way of reaching us. This too is context.

  • Rick

    Petenns-

    “I have seen how easy it is to assert in principle the cultural pole but then in practice minimize or subordinate it under doctrinal considerations”

    Isn’t that what the NT writers did?

  • Rick

    oops- left of an “e”, should have been “Peteenns”. Sorry Dr. Enns.

  • RJS

    Jeff,

    Four points I’d make in response to your criticism.

    The first is that I think the whole sweep of scripture, and especially the sweep of the NT is relatively clear in translation, accessible to the majority. But even here we rely on experts who have translated the scripture into our languages, and the better they know the context the more effective the translation.

    Second, the church in general has always valued teachers to keep things together.

    Third, the biggest problems arise when people try to dig too deeply into relatively narrow parts of scripture.

    Fourth, We must always approach scripture in community and with the realization that some fraction of any interpretation may be wrong. This is, and should be, a conversation.

    You can still pick holes, I am sure there are many.

  • http://Paroikos.com Rob

    This is a classic case of how someone uses an example (in this case, the football coaches sign) that people are inclined to understand and fully agree with, and then use it inappropriately to prove whatever point he is trying to make. I get the analogy and I totally agree with the concept of reading and interpreting the Bible in its historical context. But that doesn’t give us the right to look for demons under every rock, so to speak. Take the case with God’s violence in Canaan. Why should we look at this as anything else than literal? Is it just because we can’t conceive of a loving God doing this? Scripture plainly states (if you want to talk context) that God waited until the sin of the Ammorites was completely full before bringing judgment on them. He gave them time to repent. Over 400 years! Why is it so hard to believe that the same God of love is also a God of judgment and that the two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive? Why must we insist on seeing the interpretation as being “shaped and edited in light of the exile”? Can God not say what He means?

    Now in regard to Genesis, and to literary language in the Bible, it’s true that the Bible does use a lot of literary language. For instance, we shouldn’t suppose Jesus was literally telling us to gouge out our eyes and cut off our hands. Likewise, we shouldn’t assume that God the Father turned His back on God the Son just because Jesus quoted the first part of Psalm 22. BUT…that doesn’t mean everything in the Bible should be looked upon as needing literary interpretation. I still firmly believe that Genesis 1-2 is God’s revelation of how He literally created the universe. A good support for this is the seven day week we have, which is also found in the Bilble, in which we have six days we are to work and then rest on the seventh (and God meant that quite literally to the Israelites under the law!). Why then should we think otherwise when there is really no indication that Genesis 1-2 is using literary, and thus analogous, language? After a while we may as well start questioning everything in the Bible as to whether it “really” means what it looks like it says. In other words, we have to use discernment when we are deciphering what is literary and what is literal.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    RJS (9) Some of the points you are making are the things that go through my mind. “The scripture is inspired, but…” kind of statements. As you point out, The Scripture is inspired,

    …but we have to rely on translators and their value judgments.
    …but we have to assume that translators haven’t missed something in their understanding of the ancient world that would severely affect some passages.
    …but we don’t know which passages may have difficulties unknown to the scholarly world at large.

    We could make a much longer list.

    The good thing–which I think you meant by the clear sweep–is that even if we assumed some real difficulties, the message of the New Testament seems to be generally agreed on. It is living that vision out that is the *real* task.

    Much love.

  • phil_style

    @ Rob,

    BUT…that doesn’t mean everything in the Bible should be looked upon as needing literary interpretation. I still firmly believe that Genesis 1-2 is God’s revelation of how He literally created the universe.

    Why use an example of your own literary interpretation, in order to argue against the use of literary interpretation? All comprehension is interpreted comprehension.

  • http://Paroikos.com Rob

    @phil_style,
    I think you know what I’m saying here, my friend. I don’t think I need to interpret my comments to you. You may take them literally. ;-)

  • phil_style

    Rob, your clarification does require interpretation though. I have to apply all sorts of filters to it that can radically shift the message I take from it.

    Is the “my friend” sarcastic?
    Why the smiley face?
    Are you indirectly suggesting that the apparent contradiction in your previous is not there?

    If the bible (like all communication) does not need to be interpreted, why does Jesus propose this interpretive idea that all of scripture points to himself- (a new interpretive model no doubt)? and the Paul goes so far to say that he knows (understands) NONE of it outside of the interpretive framework of the cross! There’s no way most early 1st century scriptural scholars would have, nor did, agree with this – if it had been the case that this interpretive model was normalised the Jewish establishment might have converted en masse.

    Why does Paul refer in Colossians (and other places) to the law as being merely a shadow of things to come and not to be judged by adherence to it? This is a radical reinterpretation of scripture, in contrast to other contemporaries.

    Interpretation of scripture is so important and complicated that the issue resulted in senior early church fathers (Marcion et.al.) suggesting that entire sections of scripture be removed from the canon. Do we not think that there were at least some very strong arguments put forward, despite the outcome?

  • Percival

    Rob #10,
    You said,
    “A good support for this is the seven day week we have, which is also found in the Bilble, in which we have six days we are to work and then rest on the seventh…”

    Do you not also see how this can support the opposite view that the seven-day week is used because it is drawn from the culture? IF, however, the 7-day week was found to be universal in all cultures, such as Australian Aboriginal and Brazilian Indian cultures, etc. You might be able to use that as evidence of the 7 day week being seminal.

  • Norman

    Part of the issue at hand is determining what the intent and purpose of the writers were by and large over about 6-700 years of compilation (possibly much less). There is considered a mystical aspect to scriptures in which people do not expect we can fully comprehend its nature due to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit upon the authors. I reject that claim of mysticism and believe that it is a human endeavor and can be systematically analyzed as any human creation/work can be. These people knew what their aim and purpose was in the construction and so there is a focus and drive to exploit that purpose from an ongoing projection. That ideology can be determined IMHO.

    It is no small challenge that is before us and hopefully a lot of good work will allow concise details to be forthcoming in the future so that each generation doesn’t have to recreate the outline time and time again. Unfortunately we carry so much traditional baggage with us that color our interpretive skills that each generation has to continually peel back the collective layers to get to the root of the matter.

    One of the ways is to study the writings of the 2Temple period and recognize that these can be used as commentaries to a large extent in exploring the OT and NT context. Those who do not IMO are in effect working with one arm tied behind their back while those who do have cheat sheets that give them a leg up on the rest. It’s amazing what early Christian and first century Jewish insight we can accumulate if simply read what they were writing and reading themselves.

    However if one filters their understanding through the Hellenized church beyond say the 2nd century then you have just profoundly increased your work load because of the need to constantly filter out a Hellenized perspective that overcame the church from its original Jewish roots. In other words you start going down multiple rabbit trails to make first century orthodoxy match up with Catholic or Protestant acquired orthodoxy. It simply doesn’t mesh.

  • Don Johnson

    I agree that context is key. For simplicity, I divide that into 3 ideas, immediate context, Scripture context, and cultural context; most hacks of Scripture fall into at least 1 of these 3 and some fall into all of them; the point is to do our best to avoid hacking Scripture. The latter is often the hardest to get right, as it is a continual effort to do one’s best knowing that we are not the original audience of any Scripture book. It is also the easiest to skip, just assume that the Bible book was written TO me instead of FOR me and skip the hard cultural part, perhaps without even knowing one is skipping it.

  • http://Paroikos.com Rob

    @phil_style, I never said it wasn’t important to interpret Scripture. Quite the opposite. What I said was, it is not necessary to assume that everything in Scripture needs to be seen as analogous. This might seem common sense, but it bears pointing out, especially in light of this blog. By the way…speaking of interepretation, Paul wasn’t saying he didn’t understand any of that stuff except for the cross. The point he was making (again, in context) is that he doesn’t boast and go around talking about his knowledge, but sticks to the power of the cross in his message to change people’s hearts. Something I wish more people ok note of. And by the way…I meant “my friend” literally.

    @Percival, How is the seven-day week drawn from culture. God is the one who created the seven-day week. That’s not culture. Which further proves my point.

  • http://Paroikos.com Rob

    Should read *took* note of.

  • Anderson

    Rob (10), you say, “For instance, we shouldn’t suppose Jesus was literally telling us to gouge out our eyes and cut off our hands.”

    Why shouldn’t we assume this? The text gives no indication that Jesus didn’t mean this literally.

    I think it’s most likely that Jesus was speaking figuratively. But we can’t draw that conclusion from the text alone. How do we know that Jesus’ was using “literary language” here? What interpretive tool leads us to this conclusion?

  • http://Paroikos.com Rob

    @Anderson
    That’s a good point, and well taken. But to that I would say, again, look at the context. What was Jesus talking about? To whom was He talking and why? It’s clear by the text that the point he was trying to make was to show the severety of sin and the clear call of God for His people to be holy. And we see by further study that we obviously need His grace and His Spirit to achieve such holiness. This can be seen elsewhere in Scripture, as well, which supports that interpretation.
    However, Genesis 1-2 stands alone. In other words, it isn’t embedded in a discourse or a sermon by Jesus, it isn’t in a parable, there doesn’t seem to be hyperbole used to make a point, or any other type of literary usage in order to make one think the author is trying to say something else than what it is saying. It is really quite narrative. There is plenty of biblical support, however, for a literal 6-day interpretation of the creation account (again, one main one being the giving of the Sabbath day, as well as the numerous references in the New Testament by the teachers of the Law and by Christ Himself), and a glaring lack of textual support for reading it otherwise. This isn’t even taking into account the wording of the actual Genesis text that states clearly, “and there was evening and there was morning–the first day.” There’s really no reason to take “evening and morning” as meaning anything but that–evening and morning. That also explains why the Hebrews defined their days in the way they did, with the new day beginning after sundown. One could also argue the point using nature itself and the fact that we have 24 hour period where the earth’s rotation gives us night and day. One could also reference the resurrection account that clearly looks back to the creation story in Genesis.

  • Larry S

    Rob,

    thanks for interacting on this thread. (I’m reading from the sidelines here and appreciate your online manner).

    to your last post (#21) your comments appear to restrict themselves soley to information within the Bible. However, when one also takes into account other information (as for Walton/Enns’ work) and examines on historical sources other interpretive choices become available.

    Further question: doesn’t your approach pretty much dictate a young earth and we must therefore believe that the age of the universe is somehow made to ‘look’ much older then it really is as per Mohler.

    respectfully submitted Larry S.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Rob (21),
    You declare “Genesis 1-2 stands alone”. Do you mean that we cannot use any other part of Scripture to help us interpret Genesis 1-2? What about using any ancient sources outside of Scripture? What about using very well supported conclusions from modern science? In short, what is the basis of your conclusion that Genesis 1–2 stands alone? Or, to put it another way, how do we decide how large our context (for any scripture) should be? In my post above I tried to sketch a much larger idea of context than you seem willing to allow. This is no problem if we approach Genesis 1-2 (or any other part of  scripture) with our conclusions already in hand. It’s a huge problem if we approach with an open mind. 

    Come to think of it, perhaps differences in the allowable size and the nature of context that we are willing to consider goes some distance in explaining why Christians often end up with different interpretive conclusions. “How big is my context?” may be an under appreciated question. 

    Perhaps the pros reading today’s thread can help us with this. Do we indeed have a weak understanding of the permissible size and nature of context when it comes to the many challenges to good interpretation of Scripture?

  • Bev Mitchell

    P.S. Rob,
    And speaking of pros, have you read “How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth” by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart? This is a great introduction that helps a lot in considering context and many other things in interpretation. Since Genesis 1-3 is narrative, I suggest at least browsing their chapter 5 entitled “The OT Narratives: Their Proper Use” In there are found statements like “these are not allegories or stories filled with hidden meanings” and “they are not intended to teach moral lessons” along with discussion of things like implicit teaching vs explicit teaching. They have a very effective short discussion of the levels of narrative (metanarrative, middle level narrative and individual stories that form part of the larger lesson of the big picture). The chapter even has  a little section on reading between the lines centered on the book of Ruth which is fascinating.

  • http://Paroikos.com Rob

    @Larry,
    Thanks for your question. To answer your question, no, I don’t discount outside sources. BUT…and this is a big but…I believe when the Bible interprets itself, as it most often does, that this should be the first source of hermeneutics whereby all other methods are judged. In other words, any conclusion we come to MUST aline itself with what is clearly revealed in the whole of Scripture. For instance, if Jesus comments on something said in the OT, for example, whether a certain person wrote a certain book, then any attempt to refute that by “outside sources” must be subordinated to this.

    @Bev
    (23) I think I defined what I meant by “standing alone” in the very next sentence. “In other words, it isn’t embedded in any discourse, sermon…” (24) And no, I’ve read other books on Hermeneutics, but not that one. I’d like to, though. It looks very good. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • http://Paroikos.com Rob

    should be *align*

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I am going to take a paragraph from you post on theistic evolution and substitute biblicism for science.

    “Biblicists interpret evidence by the means that they understand, and compare that evidence with other evidence that they understand. Their whole rationale is based on what they understand. Do they suppose to have all knowledge in interpreting biblical evidence? For instance, when biblicists evaluate a book and determine how its literal or theological nature, by what standard do they determine it? Who set that standard? Or is the standard simply determined by what is rational and readily understood?” Sort of a quote

    I believe that your argument is equally applicable to you too. Therefore, the question becomes, outside of that specific book, what corroborating evidence do we have? We have oodles of evidence of the age of the earth and cross referenced data. What does a literal reading of Genesis have?

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I also want to address your slippery slope argument by making it applicable to your literal interpretation. What if the idea that a literal interpretation of Genesis becomes the standard without thought or reason. Isn’t that a slippery slope to people interpreting the bible as a literal text that outright condones violence and bigotry? That the bible is at risk for teaching people, as was said above, that they should gouge out their eyes? Your argument is not compelling.

  • JESJ

    When presenting the importance of context to students, I give them these headlines: “Penguins Beat Sharks!”, “Colts Rule Cowboys”, etc. We all know that these are references to sports teams. Yet, 1,000 years from now, if some archaeologist discovers a well preserved NYTimes, they will be quite puzzled at the references. Don’t sharks eat penguins? How can some penguins beat sharks? And what kind of sharks were they?

    What we assume as common knowledge today, the biblical writers also had some assumptions about common knowledge. Unless we know what they assumed as common knowledge, we will not be able to interpret what they write as clearly as we might be able to.

  • http://Paroikos.com Rob

    DRT,
    “What if the idea that a literal interpretation of Genesis becomes the standard without thought or reason. Isn’t that a slippery slope to people interpreting the bible as a literal text that outright condones violence and bigotry? That the bible is at risk for teaching people, as was said above, that they should gouge out their eyes?”

    Again…I have never argued to interpret the Bible without thought or reason. Nor do I advocate a blanket literal interpretation. We are able to discern what not to take literally. Such is the case with the gouging out the eyes passage. Any serious Biblical student knows Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point. But again, it’s context. This is a totally different context than Genesis 1-2. It’s what I’ve continued to say all day on here.

    But to answer your other comment about the age of the earth, yes, I do believe God would and did create the earth older looking. Adam wasn’t created as a baby, but a full grown man. I would say that the first trees, bushes, animals, were not created in infancy, but in adulthood. Why would He not create the rocks and such with an aged appearance if He so desired? He doesn’t have to answer to you or me or anyone. And what say you about the flood and the physical effects it must have had on the earth as far as fossils, etc. We just have such limited knowledge compared to God. what we study in science should cause us to stand in awe and worship.

  • http://Paroikos.com Rob

    JESJ,
    This is the exact same example used with the “Football Coaches.” I’ve addressed this already.

  • RJS

    Rob,

    It is not a matter of created in adulthood. That would be rather easy to justify. It is a matter of having been created not just with an apparent history, but with an apparent history that includes old scars and wounds.

    I’ve posted this before, but it bears repeating.

    An Appearance of Age or Mature Creation view introduces severe theological problems of its own. We are not talking about Adam with a navel or trees with rings. We are talking about light from the explosions of supernovae that never existed. We are talking about fossils of animals that never existed, remnants of civilizations that were never there. We are talking about scars and wounds and remains of events that never occurred. This isn’t like Adam with a navel – a closer analogy would be Adam created as an 18 year old with a limp from where he broke his leg when six, a scar from the time he smashed his thumb with a rock, a misshapen toenail from the time it was stepped on by a horse, and weak bones from a deficit of vitamin D. It isn’t a tree with rings – but a tree reflecting droughts that never happened, holes formed by insects that never existed, bent over by storms and winds that never blew and pecked by woodpeckers whose remains are found – but never actually lived. This kind of “history” is buried in the genomes, in morphology, in many other aspects of creation.

    If this “history” is the result of sin – creation groaning, a position I have heard on occasion – then an appearance of age YEC position suggests the sin of Adam is written backward in virtual time rather than real time. How does this solve the quandary? How can we hold an Appearance of Age view without concluding that God created the world with a deceiving appearance and gave us scripture so that we would know the truth? This has profound theological implication – and, I suggest, leads to a view of the nature of God inconsistent with the nature of God revealed in scripture. It certainly causes at least as many problems as the framework view.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    RJS has succiently shown the problems of what it “really” takes to believe that God made the world look old when it really is not. YEC does not stand up to close scrutiny and it should at least ask some questions about its own biblical principles it brings to Scripture. I find it interesting that not only did the biblical writers of Scripture write with analogies but so did the early church fathers and the earliest Christians. We have to make some olympian leaps over history to bypass all this.

    When Genesis speaks of days and evening and morning, it is using the regular week as analogy. It is making theological points, not points about biology or science. When Scripture says God speaks, it is not saying God has a tongue, a mouth, lips and a brain to create verbal noises. Analogies are present all over Scripture, especially Genesis 1-3. The interpretive issue in Gensis 1 in regards to days and the week that’s climax is the Sabbath is an analogy of God’s creative activity. To read it as a scientific or literal chronological account does not do justice to its literary features much less its ANE context.

    I wish biblicists would understand that this kind of overt literalism was neither how the earliest Christians read the Bible much less, some of the early church fathers tell us not to read the Bible in this way. Yes, the analogy is to show history over the pagan creation accounts which are not-history. But to go farther and suggest “more” is over-reading the text with our modern concerns which are not actually “in” the text. Somehow modern creationists want to move from the text that says God did it (creation) to how God did it in some of the details. We end up getting side-tracked by wondering about answers to questions that the Scriptures themselves are not concerned about even if we think they are important to us.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    For kicks I tried to put the Ten Commandments into a similar format.

    No other gods Honor father and mother
    No idolatry No killing
    Name in vein Commit adultary
    Keep Sabbath Do not steal
    No false witness
    Do not covet

    It does not seem to work directly, but the overall concept of going from the big to the small in parallel thoughts is consistent.

  • gingoro

    The example used about Football Coaches is really about linguistic issues and not context taken in a narrow sense. Sure in a broad sense context includes language but I get the impression that Biblical scholars are quite sure that we understand the ancient Hebrew language and its idioms. (Personally I have my doubts about that.) English as spoken in England is not necessarily the same language that we speak in North America. Sure we can mostly understand one another with careful word choice but not always as I have found out to my discomfort. Context in a narrow sense would imply that the language is fully understood but that the significance of the message is radically different depending upon who is hearing it.
    DaveW

  • http://philhemsley.wordpress.com/ Minimalist Christian

    @Rob and others who feel that Genesis account of creation must be taken literally rather than literarily (if I’ve got the nomenclature right). The problem comes when creationists insist that it MUST be taken literally, and do so publicly and in particular then trying to show that evolution is false. The context today is that evolution is demonstrated to be true (although not necessarily the complete explanation of life) and so to insist otherwise as a necessary part of being a Christian simply says that we are a bunch of fools with our heads in the sand. That gives us no chance to convey the important truths that Jesus brings.

    Augustine in the fifth century made the same point: “it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of the holy scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation … the shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided but that the people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and the the great loss of those whose salvation we toil, the writers of our scriptures are criticized and rejected as unlearned men” (Augustine “On the literal meaning of genesis” trans JH Taylor.)

    We should rather try to understand what evolution tells us about God, and his interaction with his creation.


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