Evolutionary Creation 5 (RJS)

Evolutionary Creation 5 (RJS) December 14, 2010

We’ve been working through Denis O. Lamoureux’s book Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution – a book that describes a way to move beyond the creation and evolutions debates. Chapter 4 of this book describes the role that ancient science plays in the text of scripture. This is something that totally blows past most modern readers of the Bible.  A little understanding of context helps to put many things into place. We will look at this from several directions over the next couple of posts.

To begin, consider Genesis 1:1:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Most modern readers of the Bible will immediately take this phrase and picture something like the image to the right, a photo from NASA taken during the Galileo mission in 1990.  The earth hangs as a ball in space, facing the sun with the moon alongside also reflecting the sun.

Nothing even remotely resembling this image arose in the mind of the ancient writer or reader of Genesis. The vision of earth brought to mind in ANE thought was a three tiered universe with a flat earth surrounded by water. This understanding is apparent within the text of the Old Testament.

This brings to the front a very important question as we consider the relationship between modern science, our faith in God, and our reading of scripture.

How do we know when we are projecting our view, foreign to the original authors and readers, on the text?

How do we recognize and interpret the Ancient Near East (ANE) views of cosmology and biology within the pages of scripture?

We tend to read the text of scripture instinctively with 20th or 21st century science embedded in our understanding. Words, phrases, passages that make little sense in our context are rendered or assumed to be poetic in our understanding. Sometimes they are twisted to match our view of the cosmos.  This misreads the text and misunderstands the ANE context and intent. Pete Enns commented on this issue in a video just recently posted on BioLogos.

In his comments Pete suggests that projecting our understanding of cosmology onto the biblical writers and readers undermines a truly high view of the Bible – one that takes the Bible on its own terms as the word of God.  “Ironically,” he says, “a high view of the Bible is one that recognizes its lowliness in some respects —it is a positive thing to keep in mind, that God is not afraid to speak in ways that people understand.”

Dr. Lamoureux is making the same point in chapter 4 of his book. It is hard, with a knowledge of Hebrew or a good English translation, to miss the ANE cosmology embedded in the text of the Old Testament. Or let me modify that a bit. Once it is pointed out, once the clues are identified, it is easy to identify and hard to miss these concepts throughout scripture. Until it is pointed out we look at the text with our own presuppositions and expectations coloring the interpretation of the words and consider this an example of the divine perspicuity of scripture.

As an example consider Genesis 1:1-8 Days One and Two:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

The vision embedded in the text here is not a modern view of a globe hanging in space. Rather the text is written from the context and vision of the ANE understanding of the universe as sketched in the figure below (4-1 from the book, the word translated by vault in the NIV2011 above is firmament in the KJV). In the first section of this chapter, pp. 111-131, Dr. Lamoureux describes the features of this ANE view of the world and how it plays into many texts, from Genesis to Job to Psalms and more, ultimately pulling it together:

To summarize, the Bible definitely presents a 3-tiered universe as illustrated in Fig. 4-1. This view of the cosmos was the best science-of-the-day thousands of years ago in the ancient Near East, and it was embraced by the inspired writers of God’s word and their readers. References in Scripture to the earth set on immovable foundations, the heavens similar to a tent canopy, and the rising and setting sun are not fanciful poetic statements. These verses were intended to describe the literal structure and actual operation of the world. The use of common objects, like tents and building foundations, were models meant to convey the genuine arrangement of the heavens and the earth. But it is clear that the biblical understanding of geology and astronomy does not correspond to physical reality. Scientific concordism fails. (p. 131)

Reading the Bible within a framework of contemporary perspective is not an issue limited to science or to the modern era. This has been a problem throughout the ages, with a mix of reading from the text and reading into the text present as each generation grapples with scripture. The issues come up, as Pete suggests in the video above, in other areas as well, including what it means to present a written history of an event or a biography of a person. In all of these areas imposition of our modern view on the text does violence to the intent and meaning of the text.

This leads to some important questions, including those given above.

How do we recognize and interpret the original views and contexts within the pages of scripture?

How do we know when we are projecting our view, foreign to the original authors and readers, on the text?

How does the this impact our understanding of what it means for scripture to be the inspired word of God? How does it impact our understanding of the message of scripture?

It 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.

For those who find the full book (400+ pages) somewhat daunting Dr. Lamoureux has condensed the book into a more accessible version, I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution. He also provides audio and slide summaries of each chapter of Evolutionary Creation online.

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  • smcknight

    All of this requires two things:

    Awareness of the ancient world and its texts.

    A willingness to use our imagination: to envision how they saw things.

    Great post, RJS.

  • normbv

    I would remind that the use of the terms Heaven and Earth in scripture is hardly what we would classify as a physical description from our modern point of view. The term H & E is more akin to what we might call an ordained “worldview” and therefore even understanding the ANE science is of limited use for a proper biblical evaluation. Other surrounding nations like Egypt, Assyria and Greece all had their own competing idea of whose H & E worldview was the correct one and it was generally established by conquest. The creation of the “cosmos” or H & E in Hebrew parlance regards the establishment of the Hebrew version centered on YHWH the one true God and is being illustrated in Gen 1-2:3 in ANE Temple creation language.

    This understanding of the dynamics surrounding the Heaven and Earth is illustrated by messianic prophecy in Isaiah 65-66 in which it is foretold of a change in the nature and structure of the Heavens and Earth at the time of Christ.

    Isa 65:17 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.

    This hardly makes sense when viewed through the prism of the H & E being defined strictly in physical terminology. The NT Hebrew writer lends support to this understanding in which he says that the Heavens will be rolled up like a garment and will be changed.

    Heb 1:10-12 And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; (11) they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, (12) like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. …

    This is further explained in Heb 12:26-28 when this change is reflected as similar to the previous shaking of the Heavens and Earth [nonphysical] at Mt. Sinai in the giving of the Law. This new shaking will continue until the Law passes at the coming removal of the Temple and legalistic Judaism in fulfillment of Christ prophecies at Jerusalem’s impending fall. It is also foretold as the full establishment of the Kingdom of Christ.

    Heb 12:26-28 At that time [Mt Sinai] his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” (27) This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken–that is, things that have been made–in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. (28) Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,

    This is illustrated again in Rev 21-22 in which God comes down to dwell with all humanity including the Nations having defeated them in Cosmic battle and finishes the Temple Creation account of the Heavens and Earth of Gen 1-2:3. This again took place with the fall of Old Covenant Judaism in the first century.

    Gen 2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them.

    The New Heavens and Earth replaces the Old Heavens and Earth covenant/worldview and is surely not to be perceived as a physical change in our literal physical cosmos but a change in God’s ordained plan for man to have relationship with Him in a new Spiritual way. It is a victory established over the rulers and principalities of the old order of the world. Christ now reigns.

    Rev 21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
    3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.

    I think it is important to understand this background when reading the Genesis 1 creation account and understand it from a Hebrew mindset and not from a modern or even ancient physical viewpoint. The typology of the physical world has been appropriated to tell the coming story of God’s Spiritual realm and it’s important to keep this in focus while investigating Genesis and all biblical literature. Revelation and the NT are simply reflecting the prophetic implications of Genesis 1’s Temple creation introductory prologue. I would submit that is the purpose of Genesis 1 from a Hebrew perspective and science whether ancient or modern has little to do with the thrust of the story.

  • Great Post RJS.

    Thinking and studying along these lines in reference to Gen.1-3 is crucial in gaining a more faithful understanding of original intention and perspective.

    It is clear from studying these accounts that the Hebrew word ha-aretz refers to land, ground, region and/or realm of human habitation, and not ‘planet’ as we moderns automatically assume. This is important on a number of fronts, including our reading of the flood account in Gen. 6-9.

    I think we would affirm that God is the source of all creation, including what the biblical authors understood about creation, and what we understand today. However, I am not expecting the Bible to explain scientific matters to me or to be in absolute harmony with modern science. To try and force the Bible into the categories of modern scientific discoveries or science back into the Bible creates an opposition between the two that is completely unnecessary.

    Gen. 1 transcends the ideas of the ANE to speak to people of all times about God’s role in creation, and was never meant to provide and challenge verified scientific discoveries (the ‘how’ of creation).

    God, so it seems, did not violate the writers’ understandings of their environment to disclose details about the universe that they would not have been able to verify and understand, as we can today. The Bible does not address issues about which the writers knew very little or nothing about. This just seems to make sense, doesn’t it?

    Keep up the great dialogue!

  • Jeremy

    Great post! It’s a shame that I’ve found these arguments singularly unhelpful when talking to my literalist friends and family. They just retreat into the same arguments they used before, but with an additional “Are you saying I need to go to seminary or something before I can understand the bible at all?!” “No, but it helps” isn’t welcome response.

    As for the questions, it hugely impacts our ideas of inerrancy and message. In my opinion, the more we learn, the more the traditional way of seeing these things turn into a bit of a house of cards. It wrecks people that built their faith on certain propositions.

    Funny thing is, for all the nuance this stuff adds, and even radically reframing our interpretation of some passages, I don’t think the message changes all that much! YHWH is still God and still created the universe. We’re just arguing about methods at this point.

  • Jeremy,

    I hear ya.

    The great challenge on this and other important topics is to look for ways to translate the conversation to those in the pew. It’s great to discuss them here and work through them, but to help the church, both locally and globally, to gain a more informed understanding of the relevant issues continues to be a significant obstacle. After all, if the conversation is contained to the academy, what good will it ultimately produce for the church at large?

    Let’s continue to look for a way(s) forward, with God’s help and innovation.

  • How do we know when we are projecting our view, foreign to the original authors and readers, on the text?

    I’m not sure exactly how we can know that we’re bringing in our own view other than in hind-sight. If you don’t know ANE cosmology, for instance, you’re left with bringing your default understanding and interpretive framework. I find it pretty frustrating that I’m most likely bringing lots of baggage to my reading of the Bible, but what can we do but press on and do the best we can?

    How does the this impact our understanding of what it means for scripture to be the inspired word of God? How does it impact our understanding of the message of scripture?

    Frankly, for me it shakes the foundations of my faith in the Bible as Scripture and of Christianity in general. I have a hard time understanding theological concordance that lacks significant historical concordance at the very least. How can you separate the theological meaning from the actual history they are told through? What is the point of the OT if it is just a bunch of nationalistic Hebrew fairy tales? I question the idea of inspiration if it means nothing more than “okay, these are the good stories, we’ll keep them”. I have a hard time seeing a true middle ground between fundamentalism/inerrancy and liberalism, and so this topic is very troubling to me.

  • Jeremy

    Jordan, I think our demand for factual accuracy is our problem, not anyone else’s. The biblical authors very likely believed that what they were saying was “in fact” true. They are expressing something transcendently (sp?) true within their limited knowledge. I don’t think they would be nearly as bothered to find out they were wrong on mechanics as long as the core of the story remained untouched.

    I’ve learned a ton about this sort of thing studying African and Native American modern writings. They don’t care whether the story is “true,” but rather that it carries and communicates a piece of their identity. Tribal story is never about facts. The facts are irrelevant.

  • Maybe we find it ‘troubling’ (which is not necessarily a bad thing, as it can yield good results) because of the expectations we’ve placed on scripture in the beginning; which has little to do with the text/tradition itself. The moment something that we deemed to be integral to our faith and our understanding of scripture is questioned, we find it difficult to maintain that same faith. Maybe we can blame an insufficient interpretive framework for these crises of faith, and not the text itself. The scriptures are profitable for the purposes for which they were written and succeed very well in that task. They will never lead us astray and provide insight into a God who desires to make himself known. However, this also underscores the vital importance of hermeneutics.

    We all at one point or another have struggled with aspects of Christianity, and will continue to do so in the future. That’s a part of it. However, our faith rests in God, the source of all, who also sustains all of creation by his power. This will never change.

  • normbv


    There is not a simple answer as I’m sure you realize. It starts with recognizing first that there is a God by looking around us and observing nature and coming to grips with the realization that most humans around the world do see that there is something intelligent and great behind this entire world. The validation of the word of God is then illustrated by the confluence of centuries of prophecy that point to the God who steps down into our realm and brings us into harmony with Himself. This harmony is the Great Commandment that was the backbone of the message from the beginning and it reveals a God whom we can truly appreciate and glorify in the Personage of Jesus Christ. The rest is mostly fluff, but to know God through Jesus is the essence of what God intended for His creation.

    It’s interesting to learn about the story of how it transpired through the ages but the end result is rather a simple realm of faith expressing itself in the manner that God would have us. Who can argue with such simplicity? If we keep that idea in focus and remain in concert with God then our faith will allow us to work through these issues albeit sometimes with a struggle. The worst thing we can do is just throw our hands up in despair and say I’ve had enough.

    KISS is the answer and yet we carry so much systematic baggage from our heritages that it is a struggle to rid ourselves of that mill stone that often drags us down.

  • Jeremy,

    My problem is that I’m not sure how you can possibly know a transcendental truth is true unless it is grounded somehow. If Paul calls me to be united in Christ’s death but Christ never died, what’s the point? When I see Jesus described as a Passover lamb, it connects to something God did (or didn’t), not merely some theological idea.

  • Rick

    Jordan asked-
    “What is the point of the OT if it is just a bunch of nationalistic Hebrew fairy tales?”

    Although I agree with much of what Jeremy and Jeff wrote in response, Jordan’s questions remain good ones.

    It would appear easier to separate the theological from the scientific than it is to separate the theological from the historical.

    Scripture does appear to rely on history more than science. If the gospel is, as Scot puts it, “…the saving story of Jesus that completes Israel’s story”, then Israel’s story must be understood. That understanding seems to be in real time and history.

    If we say that Genesis 1-3, or 1-11, is not meant to be historical, then it brings up some issues, but fine. However, the stakes are raised as we go past that point as we head into historical sounding territory.

  • normbv,

    Thanks for the words. My problem is that my experience has always been so sola scriptura that it feels like all I know about God is what is in Scripture. I have a hard time seeing him elsewhere. I certainly couldn’t defend or even explain Christianity outside of the Bible. So when that starts being stripped away I’m not sure really what to do, how to really even see God or know God beyond a shadow of a hope that what I’ve been told and what I read in the Bible is really true. It is disconcerting at the very least.

  • I’m no scientist. And frankly, I don’t know what I think of the whole debate. One of my spiritual mentors was a NASA scientist who sent dozens of satellites into space to probe the wonders of the created universe. But a couple of thoughts:
    1. It seems presumptuous to say that we know what ANE cultures thought when they used these words in these texts.
    2. We have no charts that I know of like the one proposed from antiquity.
    3. It is conjecture, not “proven fact” that these are not poetic descriptions (i.e. sun rising, sun setting). It may be true but it is not proven.
    4. The analogy on the NT gospels doesn’t work. And I think most NT scholars would at least nuance their own understanding of the difference/truthfulness/harmony of the gospels in a radically different way than was offered in the video.
    5. Why is it necessary that the biblical author understand all of what he wrote?

    Just some thoughts. Trying to wrestle it through.

  • normbv


    The biblical author IMO understood the theology of what he was presenting but he may not have understood it from the manner that you or I may want or expect. We have much added theology that is foreign to that world which is causing so much of our duress. I believe our goal is to try to rid ourselves of our accumulated misapplications. It is a work in process to say the least.

  • DRT

    I can’t help but think if the authors of Genesis were alive today they would write something more like this, perhaps we should just re-write the doggone thing:

    1:1 In the beginning God created the cosmos.

    1:2 Now the cosmos was empty, but the Spirit of God was there. 1:3 God said, “Let there be a singularity.” And there it was 1:4 God saw that the singularity was good, so God evolved the singularity by setting the darkness into eternal expansion. 1:5 God called the singularity “energy” and the darkness “space.” There was time to let the cosmos evolve, marking the first day.

    1:6 God said, “Let there be clumping of energy and let it separate energy from space. 1:7 So God made the space and clumped the energies making bodies of material. It was so. 1:8 God called the clumps “matter.” There was time to let the cosmos evolve, a second day.

    1:9 God said, “Let the matter in space be gathered to round bodies and let some be suns and others planets.” 29 It was so. 1:10 God called our planet “earth” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” God saw that it was good.

    1:11 God said, “Let the planet produce non-sentient life: single celled organisms that will create plants yielding seeds according to their kinds, and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.” It was so. 1:12 The planet produced organisms – that will eventually produce plants yielding seeds according to their kinds, and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. God saw that it was good. 1:13 There was time to let the earth evolve, a third day.

    1:14 God said, “Let the air be clear to see stars and the separation of the day from the night, and let the stars be signs to indicate seasons and days and years, 1:15 and let them serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.” It was so. 1:16 God cleared the atmosphere – the allowing the sun to rule over the day and the moon to rule over the night. He made the stars also. 1:17 God placed the lights in the expanse of the sky to shine on the earth, 1:18 to preside over the day and the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. God saw that it was good. 1:19 There was time to let the earth evolve, a fourth day.

  • DRT

    Regarding the jordon and other’s thread here, I think of the bible in a way that is similar to the progressive revelation concept but more like a progressive documentory concept. What I mean to say is that as the bible goes on, the concordance with actual history gets tighter with Genesis being the least like history and the letters the most. The letters were written by specific people and appear to be genuine. The gospels seem to me to be a step less accurate, if you will, concerning the historicity of the events that took place.

    I work with a lot of people from other cultures and these folks see the world differently than we do. Some really are not hung up on punctuality at all. I mean at all. It is hard to relate to. Others cannot tell you that what you are saying is wrong. They will agree with you nearly no matter what you say. It is hard to relate to. Their views of historicity of events will be quite different from ours. They will take great latitudes in describing what they consider to be the non-essential parts of the story because that is not only acceptable but expected in their culture.

    So I don’t really have a problem with recognizing there is ambiguity in the test of the bible.

    The other question seems to be out there is what happens if we don’t have sola scriptura? I believe that the bible is a human instrument. It uses human language and human technology to communicate what it is about. Since that is what it is, it is impossible for it to fully express God, Jesus and the Spirit. So how do I access our God. I use the bible to be a direction finder for finding God in our world. I meditate to try and clear my mind so the Spirit can talk to me. I read and write on the Jesus Creed so I can see how others are working to recognize Jesus in their lives. I read the bible to understand our only official written record of God’s message. I don’t believe that the bible is the only account of God.

  • ChrisM

    Agreed, a very good and needed post! Your questions which speak to authorial intent are paramount. I grew up believing the literal interpretation side of the debate merely because that was the mindset surrounding me by the adults in church and by my peers in school. What opened my mind in adulthood and subsequently lead me away from holding to a requirement that the creation narrative had to be literal for a modern-day reader was Leviticus of all things. In Leviticus 11:18-20 the bat is classified as a bird, which is an understandable conclusion for a primitive people – if it’s got wings, it’s a bird. Despite our modern sophistication that allows us the precision to classify within kingdom/phylum/class/order/family/genus/species, it does not make the classification system in Leviticus incorrect but merely rudimentary. I personally have yet to come across anyone who has thrown out the Bible as being the Word of God based on the rudimentary science found in Leviticus 11:20.

    If we can be at peace with Moses thinking that a bat is a bird, can we also be okay with him seeing cosmology also through this same primitive lens? It would seem inconsistent to hold him to a modern scientific standard in Genesis but not in Leviticus. In light of taking a primitive science angle to the Pentateuch, perhaps the main focus we should take on the creation narrative is the revelation that God was in the beginning and created everything by Divine fiat and thus take that point as the authorial intent? That frees us up from overemphasizing the very manner in which it all transpired as being the main intent. I’m not advocating we not continue to learn how it truly transpired but merely that we don’t view it as the author’s main intent and in turn make it into such a polemical debate.

  • normbv


    Here is the take I like. It’s the story of Jimmy Stewart in the Christmas story of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which he gets to see the world through the eyes of what it would be like without his goodness and presence. It was a world of darkness and chaos but because of Jimmy there had existed a soul for good bringing a vibrant “Light” into that wretched dark little town ran by Mr. Potter. That is the story of Genesis that is being introduced and unfolded IMHO.

    Jeremiah laments this same idea here in describing the inability of Israel to live up to her calling as Priest to the world.

    Jer 4:23-26 KJV I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was without form, and void; and the heavens, and they had no light. … (25) I beheld, and, lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens were fled. (26) I beheld, and, lo, the fruitful place was a wilderness,

    Keep in mind that Genesis was probably written/redacted during the Zenith of OT Hebrew literature, possibly during Isaiah or Ezekiel’s time. It is not quite the ancient literature that is often fostered upon it but was contemporaneous with the other OT authors. This has important bearings when we notice that Ezekiel was quite comfortable with Garden Imagery taken from Genesis.

  • DRT

    Another thought around the sola scriptura and how we know what is God. First, we can’t be sure what is God, so we are always looking. But aside from that,

    I like to view the actual stories and accounts in the bible as points on a n-dimensional surface. They will never fully show the nuance of God (the true n-dimensional surface) but enough of them will give us a good idea of what he is about.

    One of Jesus parables will give us a point. A second parable will allow us to connect two points and tell something about the space between. A third point will give more detail. We have about, what, 100 points that we can use in the bible to try and approximate the true n-dimensionality of the God space. So the odds of any of those points lining up exactly with the reality that we are living in is pretty remote. But, there are enough points that we can use our intelligence to negotiate the space between the points where we live our lives.

    So the literalists seem to me to always be trying to force their situation into a biblical point, or try to make a biblical point fit every situation. That is the case with the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate in my opinion. The literalist takes a point and tries to apply it to new space without taking into account all of the other points out there that are describing the true God-space we live in.

    Jesus parables, seemingly to me, try to expand the space that a particular point covers. Instead of a concrete rule he uses parables to try and get us to know that he is explicitly not talking about points here, but a rich environment that is always changing.

    I also believe that we find additional points out here in the real world. God works through all, even terrible people, to provide additional points that we can use to plot out the landscape of the God world we live in. He also will speak directly through us. All of these points lead to the Jesus and our goal, not just the bible.

  • DRT

    OK, last analogy for me (I think), I have known my 18 year old son his whole life yet there is still a lot that he would do or say or think that I cannot predict. I don’t expect Jesus or God to be less complex than him and therefore unable to be fully captured in the bible.

  • pds

    “References in Scripture to the earth set on immovable foundations, the heavens similar to a tent canopy, and the rising and setting sun are not fanciful poetic statements. These verses were intended to describe the literal structure and actual operation of the world.”

    Really? We all can know exactly what they were thinking when they wrote that? Is that because it appeared in all the peer-reviewed scientific literature of the day? Do we know how much direct revelation God gave them?

    Studying ANE history can be helpful. But it does not resolve all the questions in understanding what they were thinking and what God thinks. I think studying ANE history can give us a different kind of epistemological arrogance.

  • rjs


    If, and here we need people with more knowledge to step in, other ANE sources describe a world such as that pictured in the post, then it seems quite reasonable to presume that the same language and image in scripture was simply part of the view of the day. I think that many OT scholars, including evangelical scholars, think that the case for ANE cosmology in scripture is very strong. Dr. Lamoureux’s book is not the first place where I’ve encountered it.

    This is where John Walton starts in his first proposition in The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. (see post here Genesis One 1)

  • John I.

    One of the fundamental problems with dealing with questions such as those posed above is that evangelical discussion of inspiration has been frozen for over 40 years. Evangelical scholars (but not necessarily those in the pew) will say that God did not dictate the Bible, but then cannot give or articulate what God might have, or could have, or did do. Moreover, other than saying the Divine – human writing of the Bible was mysterious, the practical outworking of the theory is a kind of dictation.

    Outside of that narrow shibboleth of evangelicalism (If you don’t believe in the quasi-dictation theory you are not evangelical), it’s all “liberalism” (from the evangelical point of view). On the liberal side, there are nuances, but the divide between the two is immense; neither side has much interest or capacity for bridging it (especially evangelicals, who have painted themselves into a corner).

    The matter is further complicated by deeper theological divisions surrounding Calvinism and decretal theology, in which God foreordains all and as a consequence knows all that will come to pass. Hence God has foreordained the nature and words of the Bible, and because nothing can change what God has ordained, there is no way that the words could have come out other than they did.

    Pentacostal, Wesleyan, Arminian reformed, and to some extent Anglicanism are not so captured by the foreordination problem. Nevertheless these very different ways of understanding the very character and actions of God frame the issues under consideration in very different ways and so limit or change or constrain what can be considered as Biblical.

    John I.

  • Darren King

    How do we recognize and interpret the original views and contexts within the pages of scripture?

    We choose to *consciously* see the text from the original audience’s point of view.

    How do we know when we are projecting our view, foreign to the original authors and readers, on the text?

    Only by studying the culture, the context, the literature enough to recognize the text from their point of view, rather than ours. Once we’ve done this we’ll more easily recognize anachronistic projections.

    How does the this impact our understanding of what it means for scripture to be the inspired word of God? How does it impact our understanding of the message of scripture?

    “Inspired” is not a one-size fits all term. A message can be inspired even if its packaging its contextually determined.

  • RJS, thanks.

    We use historical source information not only in this instance, but every time we try to interpret anything in scripture. If I want to better understand the circumstances surrounding Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth, I will look not only to Paul’s letter as a source of information, but to outside sources as well. Both locatons will tell me something about the culture in which Paul wrote the letters. Issues surrounding geography, religion, cultural practices, etc, all play an important role in helping me to better understand the situation into which and from which Paul wrote. It will not answer all of my questions, but I do believe it will help me to arrive at a more faithful interpretation and understanding of the letters.

    Ignoring the context of the ancients is a bad hermeneutical move. It can potentially lead to a reader-centered method of interpretation, which will always cause problems. To better understand a passage written in any period of history, the right approach will always be to engage in historical research as we seek to gain a clearer picture of the original context. In order to understand what a text means, we first have to determine what it meant to the original writer(s) and hearers.

  • AHH

    I think if people in the church could be made to understand that the early chapters of Genesis implicitly assume the ANE structure of the universe as a background (and that this is background, not the point of the text), about 50% of our problems in the science/faith area would go away.
    But it is hard to communicate such things in Evangelical settings, implying that God did not bother to correct the incorrect cosmology that the inspired writers had in their cultural context, without being tarred with the “low view of Scripture” brush.

  • pds


    I said studying ANE history can be helpful. My point was as to the certainty that Denis expresses as to how they viewed it. Did they hold their views as science? As poetry? as revelation?

    “These verses were intended to describe the literal structure and actual operation of the world.”

    He sounds like a modern scientist imposing his knowledge framework on the writers. Did the ancient writers use diagrams like in Fig. 4-1?

  • pds

    There is also subtext that “we know more than they did.” In some respects this is true. But if they had better direct revelation from God, they knew more than we do. Maybe they saw the spiritual realm better than we do.

  • For those who find this topic interesting, I highly recommend Pete Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation. It addresses (among other things) this issue of perspective and worldview. It helped me change how I had understood (i.e. misunderstood) Scripture and settled my mind on some things that had troubled me my entire adult life.

  • Dear RJS,
    Let me begin, as many other have before me, by complementing you on this post. Well done!

    You state:
    “He sounds like a modern scientist imposing his knowledge framework on the writers. Did the ancient writers use diagrams like in Fig. 4-1?”
    Check out page 6 of a paper I wrote regarding the ancients using diagrams.

    The answer is ‘Yes’ the ancients (Mesopotamians & Egyptians) used diagrams. And ‘No’ I’m not imposing my knowledge framework on them (because I don’t believe in a 3-tier universe); rather, their categories are shaping me into understanding what they believed. As I say to my students, the key is to consider that song on the radio with the verse “Walk like an Egyptian.” When we read an ancient text, we need to THINK like an Egyptian, an Assyrian, and a Hebrew.

    Now, admittedly, my use of the category ‘ancient science’ is used for pedagogical purposes. Many of the categories I use emerged through teaching undergrads. And of course, we could debate the meaning of the term ‘science; and whether the ancients actually did science. To those who reject the ancients did science, I simply ask, “When is the last time they predicted an eclipse?” I can’t and I don’t know many today who can. So, I can’t write off the Egyptians and Mesopotamians as not being able to do any science.


  • Mike Farley

    It seems to me that OT authors are using phenomenological language (i.e., the language of appearance) when they talk about the sky as an “extended surface” or the earth as “immovable.” Those types of descriptions are ordinary language descriptions of the way the world appears to a earth-based observer. Interpreters who take these ordinary language metaphors as statements of a full-blown cosmology are (ironically) guilty of an unwarranted literalism and pseudo-scientific over-reading of the text. We use phenomenological language today when we refer to “sunrise” and “sunrise” because that is how the movement of the sun appears to a human observer on the face of the earth. Our use of those metaphors doesn’t necessarily imply any particular scientific/cosmological theory about the sun’s physical location or movement in relation to the earth, and I don’t see why we need to interpret the Bible’s similar uses of language as implying a specific cosmological theory either. To insist that the Bible is teaching the kind of flat-earth cosmology portrayed in the diagram above is to confuse the ordinary language of biblical descriptions of the natural world with attempts at “scientific” theorizing. It is THAT move that is imposing our scientific perspectives on biblical language, and the result is the creation of an unnecessary and unwarranted conflict between the Bible and science.

    See the argumentation in OT scholar and Hebrew linguist C. John Collins, _Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, And Theological Commentary_ and also his _Science and Faith: Friends or Foes?_

  • pds

    Denis #30,

    Your “diagrams” rather prove my point. They are nothing like your Fig. 4-1. Much more artistic, sorry. One might call them art. Any symbolism there perhaps?

    When I am talking about your knowledge framework, I am not talking about your knowledge and beliefs per se, and of course you don’t believe in a 3-tier universe. I am talking about their framework for understanding the world. They did not have a “science” category that matches ours exactly. They had different knowledge and belief categories altogether. They had different plausibility structures.

    You said,

    “These verses were intended to describe the literal structure and actual operation of the world.”

    As opposed to what? And did they make those distinctions? Did they think in your thought framework?

    Modern scientists use metaphors, similes, poetry, symbolism all the time. It is a natural part of speech. Why should we presume the ancients did not?

  • pds

    Mike #31,

    Good points. It seems to me to be a different kind of fundamentalism. An overly rigid, even arrogant, overconfidence in one’s interpretation.

  • Nancy Rosenzweig

    Mike @31 –
    I can certainly believe that the biblical authors used phenomenological language at times, that they may have been speaking figuratively or poetically in their descriptions of the earth and the cosmos. But if I say the sun set at 6:00 last night, you could ask me if I really believed the sun moved below our horizon, and I would tell you that no, I do know that the earth revolves around the sun and that its rotation gives the appearance of the sun rising and setting.

    If you were to ask someone in the ancient Near East the same question, what answer would they give? Do you believe that they had the same understanding of the solar system, the spherical earth, and the planet’s rotation that we do? If so, is there any evidence of this at all in the Bible? I may be wrong, but I don’t believe there is any indication that they had a modern view of such things. And thus it is reasonable to believe that their descriptions, poetic or not, actually describe how they viewed things. To argue otherwise is to claim that there are no statements in the Bible that reflect what people really believed about such matters. And ancient people really did care about such things as seasons, weather, the actions of the sun and so on – I would assume that their assumptions do appear at times in the Bible.

    Figurative language generally has a basis in reality. I may say, figuratively, that I traveled to the four ends of the earth – but the only reason such figurative language is available to me is because ancient people really did believe it reflected reality, and used such language frequently.

    I assume that much of the language of the Bible reflects what people of that time actually believed – and I think that does show them some respect for their language.

  • #33 pds writes:
    “An overly rigid, even arrogant, overconfidence in one’s interpretation.”

    Isn’t this so typical of American evangelicals? If you disagree with them, you are deemed ARROGANT.

    pds also adds “Good points” with regard to Mike #31 and his comments on phenomenological language.

    This only goes to show that pds and Mike aren’t reading my book. Mike, do you really think you are telling me anything new with regard to phenomenological language? If you would be reading the book you would have found on pages 108-109:

    The second popular response to the interpretation that Phil 2 refers to a 3-tiered universe is the “phenomenological language argument.” It asserts that Paul is describing the cosmos from his viewpoint, or phenomenological perspective (Greek verb phainō means “to appear,” noun phainōmenon “appearance”). That is, the world looks or appears to have three tiers. So in the same way that we now speak of the “rising” or “setting” of the sun, the apostle is using phenomenological language. Therefore, Phil 2 does not affirm the reality of a 3-tiered world. But there is a subtle error in this argument. Did Paul use phenomenological language in the manner that we do today? Would he agree with us if we asked him, “The ‘rising’ and ‘setting’ of the sun are only visual effects caused by the rotation of our spherical planet, right?” History reveals that Paul would disagree. The notion that the earth rotates daily on its axis causing the phenomenon of the sun to “rise” and “set” became accepted only in the seventeenth century.
    To be sure, Scripture employs phenomenological language in describing the natural world. But there is a critical and subtle difference between what the biblical writers saw and believed to be real in the universe, and what we see and assert as a scientific fact. Observation in the ancient world was limited to unaided physical senses, but scientific instruments, like telescopes, have broadened our view of the universe. As a result, it is essential to understand that statements in Scripture about nature are from an ancient phenomenological perspective. What the biblical writers and other ancient peoples saw with their eyes, they believed to be real, like the literal rising and setting of the sun. In contrast, we view the world from a modern phenomenological perspective. When we see the sun “rising” and “setting,” we know that it is only an appearance or visual effect caused by the rotation of the earth. Consequently, it is crucial that these two different viewpoints of nature not be confused and conflated. Failure to do so is the problem with the popular phenomenological language argument. Fig 4-2 distinguishes between the ancient and modern conceptualizations of the physical world.

    For Fig 4-2, go to my webpage and the audio/slides of EC chapter 4 and check out slide 8.


  • pds

    Denis #35,

    You said,

    “Isn’t this so typical of American evangelicals? If you disagree with them, you are deemed ARROGANT.”

    I did not deem you arrogant, and my use of that word was not because you disagree with me. I was referring to this statement by Mike:

    “Interpreters who take these ordinary language metaphors as statements of a full-blown cosmology are (ironically) guilty of an unwarranted literalism and pseudo-scientific over-reading of the text.”

    It was not about you personally. I used the word “arrogant” because that position strikes me as “arrogant.” Nothing wrong with that in my book.

    Sorry you feel the need to mischaracterize what I wrote and use it to stereotype American evangelicals.

    “This only goes to show that pds and Mike aren’t reading my book.”

    I have already told you politely that I am not reading your book, I would like to read your book, and I am frustrated that it is so expensive. Why do you keep suggesting that I am making some other claim, as if to score points?

    When I refer to the sun going down, I really mean that the sun is going down, because it is going down from my frame of reference. It is accurate to say that it is going down. Why? Because I am not thinking about or talking about astronomy. I am drinking a beer and talking about life and beauty with good friends on a back porch.

    BTW, only two thirds of British people know that the earth goes around the sun:


  • Mike Farley


    I have not read your book. I didn’t think that reading your book was a prerequisite for participating in this discussion. I wasn’t presuming to tell you something that you don’t know; rather, I am disputing an inference you draw from what you know.

    The biblical authors may have believed what you claim about the universe, but I don’t see how that is relevant in determining what the Bible claims on these matters. The Bible employs phenomenological language about the appearance and functioning of the natural world, and what it affirms is true as a statement of what ancient authors perceived and how the world works from the perspective of an ancient person describing what he saw in ordinary language. As far as I can see, there are no conflicts between the phenomenological descriptions of biblical authors and our current scientific theories.

    It requires another step of reasoning (and one that I think is unwarranted) to claim that the Bible affirms the cosmology that some ancient people may or may not have envisioned or imagined on the basis of their phenomenological observations. I think that that misconstrues the nature and purpose of the language employed and the nature and purpose of the biblical texts (none of which were written to be scientific treatises on cosmology).

    So perhaps all ancient peoples did believe exactly what you claim (although I wonder if modern scholars have simply over-read some ancient texts to claim more than they do). Even if that were the case, it does not imply that the biblical texts themselves affirm an erroneous cosmology; rather, the Bible accurately reports the phenomenological observations of ancient peoples in ordinary language, and those reports are accurate when understood as ordinary-language, phenomenological descriptions (just as using “sunrise” does not logically entail any particular scientific theory at all).

  • DRT

    Denis#35 – “Isn’t this so typical of American evangelicals? If you disagree with them, you are deemed ARROGANT.”

    Thank you for this Denis. In my last church it was all love and grace until I had a different view and the Pastor told the people I am ARROGANT and a MEGALOMANIAC. What fun.

  • rjs

    It would really help if everyone would avoid using caps for emphasis – this always gives the impression of yelling and hinders civil conversation.

    bold (“less than” b “greater than” to turn on “less than” /b “greater than” ) (like this) or italics (substitute i for b).

  • Mike Farley


    Perhaps I was a bit too hasty in concluding that you would actually disagree with my last post.

    You wrote:
    “Observation in the ancient world was limited to unaided physical senses, but scientific instruments, like telescopes, have broadened our view of the universe. As a result, it is essential to understand that statements in Scripture about nature are from an ancient phenomenological perspective….In contrast, we view the world from a modern phenomenological perspective. When we see the sun “rising” and “setting,” we know that it is only an appearance or visual effect caused by the rotation of the earth. Consequently, it is crucial that these two different viewpoints of nature not be confused and conflated.”

    I don’t think that I am conflating the two. Rather, I want to distinguish between whatever personal/private beliefs that an author may have had and the objective meaning that is or isn’t communicated via a text that he wrote. I hope I have clarified that I’m not claiming that any of the biblical authors had our modern scientific theories in mind (indeed, that would be ridiculous). However, I would dispute the claim that any of the Bible’s statement about the natural need to be understood as teaching or affirming the truthfulness of what we now know to be an erroneous cosmology. If we distinguish between phenomenological and scientific language (as you rightly do in the passage that I quoted above), then there is no reason to think that God is teaching an erroneous cosmology when he inspired biblical authors to write what they did. Rather, by recognizing phenomenological language for what it is, we can recognize that it is truthful, accurate language that is sufficiently accomplishes its intended communicative purposes. (Which is why our contemporary use of phenomenological language is likewise truthful and accurate when used in rhetorical settings that do not require scientific precision or intention.)

  • rjs


    I don’t think the Bible affirms ancient cosmology – it uses ancient cosmology. It uses ancient cosmology because it was the language of the day.

    The problem comes when we think and teach that the Bible is affirming parts of ancient “science,” and when this isn’t possible insist that the language is poetic or figurative. We (or at least many of us) do this to match a view of what a divinely inspired inerrant text should be. Personally I think we should read the text, in context as much as possible, and let this tell us what the features of a divinely inspired text are.