The plain sense of the Bible

In March of this year (when I first posted this), the student group VERITAS brought Terry Mortenson to campus to speak about evolution. I will not discuss the biological aspects of his presentation, but will leave that to biologists and other specialists. Mortenson was exposed as talking about things (such as the meaning of Hebrew words) that he really knows little about that isn’t parrotted from other sources, and it would be foolish for me to make the same mistake.

When it comes to the Bible, however, Mortenson made claims that are easily tested. He claimed that not only Genesis 1-3, but other passages such as the stories about the birth of Jesus, are historically factual narratives that may not use modern language, but which accurately describe things as they actually happened. He said that this is the plain sense of these stories, and that context showed this to be the case.

I would ask anyone genuinely interested in understanding the Bible to take a look at Matthew chapter 1. Matthew 1:17 says that “all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations” (RSV). The plain meaning seems beyond dispute: these are all the generations in question, and in each group there are fourteen. This is the plain meaning, and it is clearly false. On the one hand, one only has to count them in order to see that there are in fact two groups of 14 and one group of 13. On the other hand, one only has to look at the genealogies in Kings and Chronicles to see that in order to get 14 in one of the groupings he had to leave out some generations.

If Mortenson is correct that the Bible should be read as providing factual data when this is the plain meaning to a modern reader, then the Bible is false, unless one wishes to propose a special “Biblical mathematics” in which 14 sometimes means 13, as well as a special Biblical linguistics in which “all” sometimes means “some”. There is, however, another solution. My own view is that the desire for historical, factual information, and the assumption that this is what will be provided because it is mose important, are modern perspectives these authors did not share. The number 14 is the numerical value of the name David in Hebrew, and that seems to me to explain why the author went to such lengths to emphasize this number – even to the length of making the text numerically and genealogically inaccurate! The point is about symbolism, and not history, nor is it about math. But the latter, to a modern reader, seems to be the plain meaning of the text.

Is Mortenson correct that if we cannot trust the Bible on math, or history, or science, then we cannot trust it on anything? Absolutely not. I am tempted to use Mortenson himself as an example, but I will instead use myself. I am not inerrant, and I do not always get my facts right. I try to be honest, but the paradox is interesting that if I claimed I was always perfectly honest I would be dishonest in doing so! Wouldn’t we all? Does this mean that I am totally untrustworthy? I certainly hope not – again, wouldn’t we all?

What if the Biblical authors were not pope-like figures who, when writing Scripture, became infallible and wrote infallibly, but were ordinary people without this superpower? What if they wrote in their human, fallible way about life-changing experiences they had, and tried to express this in words as best they could? Would that make their testimony about this worthless? Not at all – it would just make it human testimony. The reason I am a Christian is that I have had an experience of being born again that seems to me to be what these authors at times talk about. But in studying the Bible I have learned not only that the Bible is not inerrant, but that it is spiritually dangerous to think of the Bible as inerrant. This is not only because it is idolatry (attributing divine attributes to something created), but because it leads to arrogance and a conviction that (at least as long as we “stick to the Bible”) we have got it all figured out, we have all the answers, etc. I say this as someone who felt this way himself. I used to give talks very much like the one Terry Mortenson gave last night. What changed? I studied the Bible, not just superficially but in a serious, intellectually and spiritually rigorous way, reading books by experts in these areas who were not all carefully chosen because they said what I wanted to hear. I also was fortunate enough to read books by biologists who took the time to explain why some of the arguments used by creationists are incorrect, and others are outright lies.

These latter books also explained what science is, and that the appropriate scientific response if we find that evolution through natural selection turned out not to provide a completely adequate explanation of biological diversity would be to keep looking, keep researching, keep trying to understand and explain. That is what science does. It would be entirely inappropriate for scientists to throw up their hands and say “we do not yet have a complete explanation, and so let’s just say that God did it and be done with it.” What would have happened if, because of the plain meaning of the Bible’s reference to the sun standing still, science had stopped investigating the possibility of the earth moving around the sun? Would we be better off? Would scientific progress have been possible? It saddens me when I see history repeating itself, and these same battles being fought again. When will Christians learn their lesson? The answer is, when the majority of Christians realize that they are reading the Bible selectively, and instead of ignoring so much of what the Bible says and what the Bible is, begin to take it seriously. That is not what literal six-day creationism does. It is what Biblical scholarship does, and although I do not expect the majority of Christians to learn the Biblical languages and study for degrees in Biblical studies, is it too much to ask that you include on our reading lists books written by serious scholars, genuine experts in the field. Choose serious Christians from your own denomination by all means, individuals who have a deep, spiritual commitment to Christ, and are not merely academics and professionals. But inform yourselves.

Let me close with a quote from Proverbs 18:17. “The one who states his case first seems right, until another comes forward and questions him”. I had, back in my teenage years as a fundamentalist, immersed myself in one particular perspective, and fell into the trap this proverb warns us about. The truth is that there are atheist scientists who become Christian young-earth creationists, and there are Christian young-earth creationists who become scientists and atheists. There is movement in both directions. But the suggestion that these two extremes are the only options is simply false. There are other options, and even among fundamentalists there are few who take their alleged Biblical literalism to the extreme of asserting that the earth is flat – and if one combines different references, a circle with four corners. Even most fundamentalists are not at the extreme end of the spectrum, even though they often use rhetoric that denies the existence of a spectrum at all, and claim that there are only two options. My own opinions were changed by studying the Bible and by reading (as an amateur, I admit it) books by biologists, some of whom are themselves Christians and find no necessary conflict between being a Christian and believing that biological evolution occurred. I am under no illusion that anyone who evaluates the evidence will necessarily reach the same conclusions I have. But I do think that anyone who studies the evidence in a serious way will not tend towards the extremes. I am also convinced that in having one’s views challenged by the evidence from both the Bible and science, it will open up to you a scary and disconcerting but also exhilarating and liberating experience, in which you can consider new evidence without fearing that your whole worldview will collapse. Finding yourself in that place you may even dare to change your mind, or admit that you don’t know, because you will realize that human existence is inherently uncertain, and that trusting God does not make us infallible or make us right all the time. That is the whole reason that humbly casting ourselves upon God makes sense and is so important.

I’ve been thinking about these matters for quite a long time, but I still have a lot to learn. I am ashamed when I think back to my teenage years, how foolish (and unchristian) I was to believe that, after a little reading of the Bible, some high school science classes and reading a few creationist books, I had all the answers. I didn’t even know what the important questions were yet. I am still learning. If there is one thing that the overarching central themes of the Bible and of science work together to persuade me of, it is that in my lifetime I will not have all the answers, and that is OK. No, it is more than OK – it makes one’s spiritual and intellectual journey through life meaningful and exciting.

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  • Brian

    Not sure if you’re still monitoring this post or if you’ve answered the question I’m about to ask elsewhere, but….Can you give some suggestions on science/faith books that you’ve found to be particularly engaging and well-written.I read your posts and I see much of myself in the journey you have taken. I was completely creationist until a friend I trusted hooked me up with my first book that actually explained evolution in ways that finally made sense. Since then I have been living in that strangely exhilirating state of ignorance where I just don’t know WHAT to believe. I keep faith in God and Jesus, but everything else outside of that is up for constant re-evaluation.anyway, great site.

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks for visiting, Brian! I really like Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God. In my opinion, it does the best and most thorough job of explaining why YEC and ID views are problematic not merely from the perspective of the scientific evidence, but also from the perspective of Christian theology.If you’re looking more for someone to reflect on the issue theologically, then I hope to review Keith Ward’s most recent book soon, and usually I can give his books a recommendation. Others by John Polkinghorne, Ian Barbour and Arthur Peacocke may also be helpful.I hope this is helpful, but if not or if there’s something else I can do to be of use, let me know!

  • McDozer

    I think it's interesting what you said about making an idol out of the Bible, which perhaps some folks do.I agree with you that not every word can be taken absolutely literally.On the other hand, there are what I would call seriously thinking minds (like Russell Humphreys) who are trying to find scientific explanations for the biblical account of creation, and I think it's a shame that most of science still happens under the pretext that "there is no God" (which doubtlessly colors the results in some cases.)There is, also the other aspect about what the Bible calls "the Word of God," which the Psalmist said, God had elevated even above His own name. The Bible also states that by the Word of God, the worlds were created.Maybe it's okay to give the Word of God some credit in that light of that aspect.We're finding out that energy plus matter didn't do the trick to bring forth life. At the basis of every simple living organism there is information. Heaps of it. Never have we observed information to come about by itself without an author…Why are these observations not considered by secular scientists?Also, if you look at where science has led us… Do you think we're making all that much progress?Or could the Bible be right, after all, when it says that things are getting worse, instead of better?Probably a lot depends on what crowd you want to be popular with:If it's the scientific community, one certainly wouldn't want to out himself by quoting the Bible.Perhaps there are, in fact, even more dangerous idols to have, than the Bible?

  • James F. McGrath

    I don't think you are giving enough credit to the Christians who have historically been involved in science and who are involved in the scientific enterprise today. Nor do I think you are doing justice to the fact that science is about (at least, when it is working according to its own principles) following the evidence where it leads. The "Big Bang" was viewed with suspicion by atheists who thought the notion of a beginning to the universe sounded too much like Genesis 1, but the scientific community embraced the theory nevertheless – because in the natural sciences, data ultimately trumps ideology.

  • McDozer

    Thank you, James, for that swift reply!I do appreciate your way of thinking, and I am personally really only interested in finding the truth, rather than defending any existing personal paradigm.I just also know, though, from experience, what truth has worked better for me, as evident by the fruit it has wrought in my life compared to the former philosophies I was basically forced to accept as fact since childhood.Without wanting to discredit any scientist at all, be they Christian of otherwise… isn't it sadly more often so that a theory is verified on democratic terms, and such of political correctness, and "uncomfortable" data is often all too willingly dismissed?I really don't want to tease you or upset you, but would really just like to find out what criteria you judge by, and how genuine your love for the truth is.So far, I've been able to appreciate your arguments, was able to relate to them and see your point, but nothing has really knocked my socks off yet or given me incentive to discard (in my mind) the veracity of Genesis…Just stating, as you say in one of your posts, that some things we'll never find out in this life is basically saying the same as, "Let's wrap up our question in a bundle of faith and leave it in the Lord's hands," the way fundamental believers would, so it basically all remains a question of faiths, doesn't it?

  • Scott F

    McDozer:This whole "information" thing is slippery. If 10,000 chimpanzees with typewriters after 1000 years manage to produce Hamlet, have they created information out of nothing? Does it matter that they don't know that they have produced information?If I take a picture of the moon, my photo will contain information. This information was acquired from the environment, not created ex nihilo. I can combine these two examples to create life (nifty trick, huh?). The chimp parts are the classic random processes assembling and re-assembling odd bits of stuff until one such unit turns out to be stable and self-replicating. The photograph part is natural selection. Natural selection does not create information from nothing. It acquires its information from the environment – just like my snapshot of the moon. It is the influence of the environment selecting which self-replicating bits of stuff replicate the fastest and best that constitutes the information which is stored in the population of the bits. The information in the environment was always there but once a medium for storing that information appeared – one that makes slightly flawed copies of itself – life took off.Heard it all before? Not surprised. This little thought experiment may not have lead to the correct answer but it is more plausible than information from nothing and does not require an outside agent with a special permit to be uncaused. Scientists are not being obstinate here. Saying "God did it," gets us nowhere. In fact, 17th century scientists studying God's handiwork is what lead us to our state of science today. Even Darwin started out cataloging God's creation but ended up with evolution. Methodological Naturalism has been so productive that we would be nuts to turn our backs on the gaps where God now lives. I'll take antibiotics over demons any day.

  • James F. McGrath

    My love for truth (as well as for the Bible) is such that, even though I had been told I ought to believe Moses wrote the whole Pentateuch in its present form, when it was clear that these texts referred to later situations and assumed a post-Mosaic date (e.g. when it says "in those days the Canaanites were in the land" or refers to kings of Edom and Israel), I was willing to allow the Bible to challenge my views. The same thing happened with inerrancy – what led me to reject that doctrine was the realization that the only way to preserve belief in inerrancy was to allow that doctrine to trump the impression given by the Biblical texts temselves.Scott, if you're going to talk about monkeys, typewriters and DNA, I hope you'll be realistic and make sure the typewriter only has four keys. :)

  • McDozer

    Sorry, Scott, but if that's the best and brightest argumentation you can come up with, I'm almost afraid it confirms my notion that if there is any such thing as evolution happening at all, it must currently be happening in reverse (have a look around you, and honestly tell me if you see things improving anywhere, except, perhaps in the wonderful make-belief reality of your television set, and perhaps the accompanying literature for those who still know how to read).Apparently you are not familar with the offs of those monkeys coming up with even one phrase of Hamlet. And even a tousand Hamlets wouldn't be enough to produce the necessary information for one single living cell. And then it would have to be in the right language, to be "understood" and processed by the receptor. It would have to be "encoded" (as in "genetic code") in order to be decoded by the device in the cell in order to perform the necessary tasks…No, thanks, but think I'll stick to the six days version then. It requires less miracles.It's evidently faith either way: either in a Creator, or in "billions of years," (when all we have ever actually seen within only days is that things decay and rot instead of magically producing order, if left to themselves) or in sheer nothingness.As far as the argument "Who created God" only shows the perfect incapability of supposedly "scientific" minds to remotely imagine anything beyond their own scope of existence, as in: a Being from another dimension that did not need a Creator and is not bound to our linear scope of time. Welcome back to "Flatland," our comfy-cozy two-dimensional world in which nothing else but our familiar 2 dimensions exists, for the only simply reason that ever mattered: we just can't imagine it.You've taken John Lennon's advice to heart: "Imagine there's no heaven…" You just can't do it anymore…No wonder young people keep killing themselves everyday. I would.

  • Scott F

    McDozer,In a way you are right about science not delving beyond their own existence. However, if God reaches out and has a book written in His name then He has entered our existence and He becomes fair game. God's supposed acts become open to evidence. Unfortunately the sum of human experience suggests that ANY alternative explanation is superior to divine intervention. As further evidence presents itself, the question will continue to be evaluated. That said, claiming all sorts of powers and properties beyond what we see with our own eyes or experience with own minds is pure speculation. You are free to believe in them but it is unreasonable to expect others to buy in based on your say so. For every Christian who clings to a medieval worldview, their is another, like James, who has moderated his or her views in accordance with the "plain sense of the world."On a more specific topic, let's be careful not to equate evolution with progress. Evolution does not make things "better" in any sense that humans would like to believe. It is only capable of adapting to current conditions. That's all. Now natural selection is capable of producing surprises, like sentient beings, but we still have horrible parasites and rapidly mutating viruses as well. One way to keep perspective with regards to evolution and "progress" is to count the number of sepcies and the number of individuals based on their "complexity." Humans may be at the top of the complexity pyramid but we are grossly outnumbered by insects and micro-organisms. It is generally true that the further "down" (a misleading phrase, I admit) you go in the complrexity the greater the variety and number of species and the greater the biomass represented by those species.Your comment about rot and decay reveals a common misunderstanding about entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Second Law only guarantees that the total order across the Universe will only decrease (or the entropy will increase). It does NOT say that order can be increase locally. The energy from the sun is used by plants to build biochemical molecules from simpler CO2, water , etc and hence increase the local amount of order and information. However the order within the sun has increased by a greater amount than that gained within the plant. It seems like you want to deny not just biogenesis but the basis of thermodynamics itself. That would force God to be actively altering the laws of nature inside every internal combustion engine on the planet. That would be a silly religion. Now, if you want to draw some bright line that says the laws of physics work in automobiles but not daffodils then you are going to need a pretty robust argument. Something a little more convincing than "look how bad things are." FWIW, I do not believe that things are getting worse every day or that children are killing themselves in despair. Mankind may yet do itself in but it possesses in its nature an equal measure of strength to match its folly such that there is yet reason for hope (yes, even degenerate atheists experience hope)It seems that our world views are so dissimilar that we could talk past each other all day. As a conciliatory gesture let me state that I believe that there is at least one line of evidence that remains open in favor the existence of the Christian God. That line is the phenomenon of the internal, personal experience reported by many Christians. I suspect that there are good, physio-/psychological explanations for these but to dismiss the possibility of God's involvement (in this one case) WOULD require an arbitrary naturalism. That said, in my humble opinion (I mean that), when considered against the other "evidence of absence", this nugget of evidence only provides Christianity a whiff of a chance and an uphill climb in establishing its veracity. But not zero chance.

  • McDozer

    Okay, that sounds a lot better already and is going to give me some food for thought. Thanks, Scott.

  • McDozer

    Dear Scott,first of all I want to thank you for having replied to my recent comment in such a calm and kind and somewhat patient manner. It has confirmed to me once again that atheists, as different in their world views from my own as they may be, sometimes possess the very "Christian" attributes of kindness and patience, etc., that we, the believers, aren't exactly always famous for.Probably a large part of the world doubts the existence of our God at least in part due to to our failure to behave the way He would want us to.But you have to see our dilemma: We're up against a huge construct, the matrix of science, that has left very little room for an excuse for living for our kind, the ones you refer to as those possessing "medieval" views. …(Continued in its own post here:

  • ::athada::

    Just want to say THANKS. I've had a similar transition in faith (at least in regards to creation/evolution) that you appear to have had, and my faith is still intact. I want to gently nudge my friends in the same direction if they are willing, lest they cling so hard to YEC that their entire faith comes crumbling down someday. Sadly, I suppose, that is exactly what YEC-proponents expect to happen. I hope they don't actually *want* this to happen, instead of a faith reconciled with science – that would be scary.

  • Claude

    Pardon if this is an unwelcome intrusion, Dr. McGrath, but you are hard on your teenage self. As I understand it, the parts of the brain that exercise judgment and insight aren’t fully fused until a person is in their twenties. No one could begrudge you your youthful misconceptions, especially since you moved on to fight the good fight. Give yourself a break. : )