‘What the Bible shows itself to be’

One from James McGrath and two from Peter Enns …

James F. McGrath: “Why Doesn’t the Bible Contain Superior Medical Advice?

You will look in vain in the pages of the Bible for a recommendation that people cover their mouth and nose when they sneeze and cough. You will find mentions of strong drink, but nothing about distilling the alcohol and using it to clean wounds or disinfect anything at all. Nor will you find the Bible’s authors recommending that drinking water be boiled to kill dangerous bacteria.

Answering the question of why these things are not in the Bible is simple, if one has a view of the Bible that is realistic, and based on what the Bible shows itself to be. In those times they didn’t know about germs, about viruses or bacteria, and thus neither mention them nor offer a means of avoiding their harmful effects (although they do occasionally mention the “angel of death” in such places where we might mention outbreaks of disease).

But if one views the Bible as containing something superior to modern biology, geology, physics and astronomy, as young-earth creationists and other such groups do, then the absence of any such useful health care information is astonishing – and ought to be unsettling.

Peter Enns: “Once More, With Feeling: Adam, Evolution and Evangelicals

If evolution is right about how humans came to be, then the biblical story of Adam and Eve isn’t. If you believe, as evangelicals do, that God himself is responsible for what’s in the Bible, you have a problem on your hands. Once you open the door to the possibility that God’s version of human origins isn’t what actually happened — well, the dominoes start unraveling down the slippery slope. The next step is uncertainty, chaos and despair about one’s personal faith.

That, more or less, is the evangelical log flume of fear, and I have seen it played out again and again.

… It has to do with what evangelicals expect from the Bible.

Evangelicals look to the Bible to settle important questions of faith. So, faced with a potentially faith-crushing idea like evolution, evangelicals naturally ask right off the bat, “What does the Bible say about that?” And then informed by “what the Bible says,” they are ready to make a “biblical” judgment.

This is fine in principle, but in the evolution debate this mindset is a problem: It assumes that the Adam and Eve story is about “human origins.” It isn’t. And as long as evangelicals continue to assume that it does, the conflict between the Bible and evolution is guaranteed.

… Evangelicals tend to focus on how to protect the Bible against the attacks of evolution. The real challenge before them is to reorient their expectation of what the story of Adam and Eve is actually prepared to deliver.

Peter Enns: “Why I Wrote The Evolution of Adam

I know many Christians who understand the scientific issues and are convinced that evolution explains human origins. They are looking for ways to read the Adam story differently. Many more others—at least this is my experience—are open to the discussion, but are not ready simply to pull the trigger on evolution. They first need to see for themselves that the Adam story can be read with respect and reverence but without needing to read it as a literal account of human origins. Both groups are thinking hermeneutically, though they approach the issue from different sides.

… Of course, there is a downside to this type of discussion. Many readers seeking alternate ways forward experience tremendous cognitive dissonance and social pressure, for they are part of ecclesiastical communions that historically have not looked kindly at the kind of hermeneutical synthesis the evolution/Bible discussion requires. In fact, not to overstate, but there are theological and ecclesiastical bodies that have a vested interest in seeing to it that these conversations don’t happen.

"Or...I should probably clarify -- the diamond horse I’ve been telling you about? It's not ..."

LBCF, No. 181: ‘Meet the Steeles’
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LBCF, No. 181: ‘Meet the Steeles’
"To be fair, Kronk was a pretty genre-savvy character."

LBCF, No. 181: ‘Meet the Steeles’
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LBCF, No. 181: ‘Meet the Steeles’

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  • Persephone

    How about that? It’s almost as if the Bible is the writings of a bunch of people from a long time ago, and is not the work of some kind of super-being which transcends space, time, and human knowledge.

  • I’m sure Peter Enns has thought provoking things to say on the subject, but I’m still trying to picture those dominoes unraveling down the slippery slope.

  • There is a deep childishness here in those who are unable to accept that their own inability to think symbolically or abstractly is exactly that; an inability and personal failing; but rather choose to piously insist that self-evident truth is the only truth and those who outwardly seem to have those cognitive skills they happen to lack are being knowingly deceitful.  

  • The notion that the bible can simultaneously serve as a form of spiritual guidance and be read in a non-literal fashion has been around since the 19th century (earlier, actually). What the heck is keeping folks from catching up?

    Can’t folks just assume that evolution was their god’s way of creating life, and that the ancient people who formed the stories of the bible didn’t understand that at the time?

  • Michael Pullmann

    Much, much earlier. Heck, Augustine argued against a literal interpretation of Genesis.

  • What the heck is keeping folks from catching up?

    There’s one school of thought that says the most recent modern embrace of Biblical literalism is actually a culteral reaction to the growing dominance of post-modernism.

    To certain conservative perspectives, the post-modernist approach of “it’s more complicated than that” is deeply threatening to the binary, tribalistic values they hold. To many cultural conservatives, there is right, and there is wrong, and there should be no ambiguity about which is which. The notion that an abuser might be acting out from their own history of abuse, and be both a victim and an assailant, violates that sharp dichotomy. In this context, viewing the Bible as ‘literal, absolute, invoilate truth’ is a way to take a stand against the ambiguity, complexity, and nuance of modern society.

  • Anonymous

    For that matter, a definitive scientific work by an omniscient God would most likely be intelligible to us, and certainly to the original audience. (What scientific notation would God use to convey formulae to a Mesopotamian tribe?)

  • Lori

    Oh, that’s not a specious argument at all. 

    I would think that any being able to communicate the Old Testament dietary laws in understandable fashion could probably have made people understand “Boil your water, and oh by the way don’t crap near your water supply.” Covering your nose and mouth isn’t that tough to convey either. 

  • Richard Hershberger

    I don’t have a citation handy, but as I recall there is a bit in Numbers with rather good advice for armies in the field and latrine discipline.

  • What Lori said!

    I look at ancient beer brewing recipes. No discussion of microbiology or yeast, but the step-by-step instructions are still present, and function to produce the product.  You don’t need an understanding of germ theory to cultivate Penicillium fungi, or to use it. (it helps, but it’s not necessary)

    If the O.T. can have instructions like “do not touch the skin of a dead pig”, why aren’t there instructions like “clean the deep wound with the fermentation of grain, then with water first boiled, then cooled”?

  • Anonymous

    My guess would be, you don’t need laws for that.*  If some sort of pig virus wipes out a town, they wouldn’t have a clue why.  If that happens enough times, a pattern emerges.  They’ve got cause and effect, but no chain of logic between.  Without that, the problem becomes some unknowable uncleanliness.  The rule simply becomes “Don’t touch dead pigs,” and they leave it at that.

    Something as everyday as washing a cut wouldn’t need to be couched in law (though if they figured out the sterilizing properties of alcohol, I’d guess that would make the cut).  You can see it’s bleeding and dirty, and someone’s bound to think it’s bad to leave it like that.  It wouldn’t need to be a matter of belief in the same way.

    * Well, “don’t poop in your own water supply” probably should have been one, but if they didn’t put two and two together there’d be no law.

  • That’s a perfectly good explanation if your position is that Biblical rules for health and safety were derived from reason and observation, that the Bible was written by humans.
    The problem is that some folks say the Bible contains God’s infallable truths about the universe. YEC say that the Bible’s timeline* for creation is superior to the evidence of modern biology, geology, physics, and astronomy. If that claim were true, wouldn’t you expect the Bible to contain profound, useful information in other fields beyond dating the start of the Universe? It stands to reason that it should contain exactly the kinds of unobserved-but-valid medical practices we’re kicking around, like “before cutting at the flesh of the living in order to heal, boil the blade in water first”.

    It’s oddly inconsistent (bordering on sadistic) for a Diety to provide detailed information about cosmology, but to stand mute on issues of basic health and sanitation that might help His chosen people survive, multiply, and be fruitful…

    *No, it’s not really the Bible’s timeline, its an interpretation based on assumptions drawn from the Bible, but let’s not get too technical.

  • The Lodger

    I think it was Stephen Hawking who said you lose half of your readers with each equation you include in a book. (This is why he only had one formula – E=mc(2) – in A Brief History of Time. Oh well.)
    Any account of Creation that can be taken seriously as fact is going to need a bit more math than we see in Genesis. 

  • Dan Audy

    David Weber’s ‘Safehold’ series of books features a religious text like this that in an effort to permanently suppress human innovation provides rituals and methods as Divine Knowledge to cover things like germ theory without ever having people investigate why.  Midwives and surgeons are required to wash their hands with holy water and recite a prayer before treating a patient or the Archangel Pascal will smite the patient with infection as punishment for the surgeons ‘impiety’.  Likewise dietary law requires sailors to eat lime and store their water in metal barrels or face divine wrath which avoids people investigating bacterial growth and nutrients.  It provides a really good example of what a holy text written by someone vastly more knowledgeable of the way the universe operates might provide laws to support health and wellbeing to those who lack the necessary background to understand why these are useful and important things.

  • Rachel Held Evans got a pretty awesome post on biblicism, using Christian Smith and her own time spent experimenting with her Year of Biblical Womanhood project as a jumping point.

  • Also, anybody here FORCED to go to the creation Museum by family? My brain was exploding.

  • Patrick

    I’m not a fan of the Pete Enns article overall.  He starts talking like he’s going to do all this deep textual analysis, but then he starts assuming that Genesis has “a” meaning.  Just one.  An original meaning, at that.  An original, intended meaning.  And that’s the valid one, not all the other meanings a text can have.  Oh!  And he assumes that if he can show that the Genesis story was originally intended to have symbolic and metaphorical meaning, then it must not have been originally intended as literal history.  Which is obviously wrong, its not an either/or.  And he happily mixes questions like whether the Israelites were capable of giving an accurate account of human origins, whether the Israelites intended to give a scientific account of human origins, and whether the Israelites intended to give an actual account of human origins.  Those aren’t the same things!  Its entirely possible that Israelites didn’t mean for their account of human origins to meet modern scientific or historical standards, but still intended for it to be a real account of things they thought happened.  As textual analysis goes, his is just bad.  There may not be much established knowledge in the field of textual analysis, but this much has been established: People who claim that the original intended meaning of a text’s authors is easily discernible from the text, and also the only valid interpretation of the text, are wrong.

    I may be psychoanalyzing too much with this bit here, but… it feels like his internal reasoning is going a bit like this: If Genesis is an actual history, then its wrong. But Genesis isn’t wrong. So Genesis isn’t an actual history, and we should look for something that ISN’T wrong, and that will be what Genesis “is.” Well, that’s not good logic.  Its just Biblicism with a hat.

    The problem may be that he can’t acknowledge multiple meanings in a single text, all valid for different purposes.  Because then he’d have to say why his favored purpose was better.  Why should readers view Genesis as having a purely metaphorical not-false meaning?  Why shouldn’t they view Genesis as also having a purportedly factual but actually false meaning?  You could do one, the other, or even both.  That he needs it to work a particular way for his religious beliefs to be Biblically supported isn’t a good answer.  So he’s buried the question.

  • Matri

    That describes a world where curiosity is as desirable as haemophilia.

    It implies that curiosity is severely punished by enforcers (and not at all divinely), in order to protect the sanctity of the so-called “religious text”.

    It is still a dystopia to anyone who would call themselves “human”.

  • Julian Elson

    I think that Jain sacred texts say you should boil water to kill the microbes. On the other hand, some regard this as, while hygienically sound, a bit hypocritical: what business does a good Jain dedicated to Ahimsa have in committing genocide against those helpless salmonella enterica bacteria? (I think the rationale involves something about boiled water containing no living beings being preferable to the cycle of death and rebirth being perpetuated as in unboiled water?)

  • Anonymous

    The reasoning behind it is that it’s better to commit the sin of taking a life a single time, rather than over and over and over and over, as bacteria are constantly born in unboiled water.

  • Matri

    By that logic, what’s wrong with glassing the entire planet?

  • Three metaphors mixed together.  I know that I was impressed.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know. I’m not a Jain. There’s probably a website where you could ask someone who is. One of my coworkers is a Jain and when she fasts, she carries around a jug of boiled water to drink. I think she only has to boil the water when she fasts, though, not all the time.