Consistent Biblical Literalism, Flat-Earthism, and Slavery

Consistent Biblical Literalism, Flat-Earthism, and Slavery December 1, 2018

An effort to be consistently literal in one’s interpretation of the Bible leads to absurdities. Even the people who are usually labeled “literalists” agree about this. Few of them think that trees will literally clap their hands, for instance. And so it would be ideal if the notion that some people “take the Bible literally” could simply be abandoned as not reflecting the stance of any actual people. Even people who claim to be “literalists,” as few as they are, do not do so consistently – and that includes treating as figurative things that ancient people assumed to be literal, such as the dome over the Earth and the sun rising and setting.

And even among those who are further along the spectrum in the direction of literalism, there are differences. One example is the flat Earth movement, which is mocked for its degree of literalism by young-earth creationists, an irony that is worth highlighting. Although it is hard to believe, as Scientific American recently highlighted, there are indeed actual flat-earthers in our time.

I am also about three years overdue to blog about some things that Keith Reich highlighted and asked about on his blog. In response to blog posts of mine about ancient Israelite cosmology, Keith wrote:

My question remains though: did the biblical writers develop at all in their sense of God and heaven, and was there any movement along the spectrum toward a figurative usage of heaven as the abode of God yet without 100% overlap with a literal meaning of sky?  I think there may have been such movement, but perhaps, that is just my modern worldview talking and I am importing that view into the ancient writers’ conceptions.  What do you think?

Please do answer his question, even after all this time. It’s a good one. Keith also followed up with another great question about biblical cosmologies, and what to do if the viewpoint of Plato is adopted in a particular work (in this case, the Epistle to the Hebrews) in a manner that it is not in other parts of the Bible. He asks:

So there it is. Plato makes his appearance in the Bible in full force in the book of Hebrews.  The dualistic Platonic worldview comes through clearly in Hebrews as Jesus and Christianity represents the fullness of heavenly reality while historical Judaism with its sanctuary/temple, its priests, its sacrifices, and its law, are only copies or shadows.

This discussion raises many fascinating questions.  If most of the Bible has one worldview (i.e., non-Platonic, non-dualistic), and one book holds another worldview (Platonic, dualistic), can these worldviews be reconciled?  Should they be reconciled?  Is one view closer to the truth than the other? But these are questions for another day.  What do you think?

And then on another matter of degrees of liberalism, Doug Wilson warned the Presbyterian Church of America that if they couldn’t accept slavery as a positive thing, since it is affirmed in the Bible, then they are basically liberals and have begun the slide towards full acceptance of LGBTQ individuals. We can only hope so. But it is truly useful when individuals like Wilson unmask today’s conservatives as individuals who interpret the Bible just the same way as defenders of slavery and flat-earthers, but selectively. They are liberals about precisely those issues that their forebears insisted must not be compromised lest the slide down the slippery slope begin.

I’ve shared my own thoughts about slippery slopes in the past, and so won’t repeat them here.

Of related interest:

Biblical Literalists Are Among the Most Vocal “Flat Earthers”

Greek Orthodox Bishop Claims Earth is the Only Planet in the Universe

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  • You’d think there was some development on the sky thing. For instance, Ephesians 2:6 that says they have been “raised up with” Christ Jesus and “seated with him in the heavenly places.” That probably doesn’t mean the literal sky. In 2 Corinthians 12:2, a man is “taken up into the third heaven,” which could possibly mean the literal sky, but seems unlikely – it appears what’s being described is a spiritual, visionary experience. Paul even says he doesn’t know if it happened physically or not.

    But even in the OT, there’s the idea that the things in heaven are invisible, such as Jacob’s declaration that Bethel was the house of God and the gate of heaven in Genesis 28 or the various passages where someone had to have their “eyes opened” to see invisible spiritual beings (Num. 22:21ff, 2 Kings 6:8ff), so there does seem to be some interplay between heaven being in a physical spot (the sky) and being a very different nature of place inhabited by a very different nature of beings even relatively early on.

    I don’t know when the shift began to happen, but I did find some rabbinic references where “heaven” began to be used as a substitute for God’s name, which seems to indicate further the conflation of “location” with “God’s presence.”

    On the Plato issue, I don’t have a problem with the author of Hebrews being influenced by Platonism, but we do have to take care not to note similarities and draw an equivalence. Some of the scholarship on John’s use of “logos” is bearing out that there can be NT concepts that seem similar (such as Philos’ logos) but ultimately seem more likely traceable to Hebrew concepts that are being expressed in Greek terms.

    That said, any biblical author is writing from their historical context and worldview, and I think that’s just something we bear in mind as we read a biblical writing. For this biblical author, slavery is simply an economic reality. For that biblical author, the sky is a solid dome. For this other biblical author, Gentiles are intrinsically dangerous and untrustworthy. I only think this is a problem if someone believes the Bible is attempting to present a unified view of everything. I would argue that it is not.

    • The fact that Paul is unsure whether the person was caught up bodily, or taken out of the body, doesn’t change the conviction that the individual was caught up into the sky to the third of the seven heavens. And going back even further, the idea that a place could be a gateway to the celestial realm, and that a deity might make its home in a stone, all seem to fit within the framework of a view of deities as having attributes such as location.

      • I entirely agree. I was just trying to think of instances where there was a porous boundary between “physically in the sky” and “spiritually ambiguous.”

        Another interesting parallel line of inquiry might be deities on mountains.

      • Iain Lovejoy

        The “third heaven” (from a bit of Wikipedia research) is ambiguous, in that it either refers to the dwelling place of God generally (the first heaven being the air and the second the firmament above and around it to which the stars etc are fixed) or (in post-Biblical thought) to the third of seven degrees of heaven all of which are degrees of ascent to God, and on which dead souls, angels etc also are. In either case it is not a physical place within creation, and it seems to me Paul is deliberately using the phrase “third heaven” to avoid giving this impression.
        Also (Wikipedia again but I checked) the Greek is harpagenta which means seized or snatched away, not “taken up” in the directional sense at all, si gives no indication physical skies are meant.

        • I’d recommend lookingup Ptolemaic cosmology (Wikipedia will probably be acceptable if you’re willing to settle for that). The issue is not what locations Christianity later designated for various activities and entities, but where these were thought to be localized, if anywhere. The whole notion of seven heavens derives from the idea that the sun, moon, and five visible planets each move along their course on their own celestial sphere. And so you can try to make a case, if you are able to provide evidence to support it, that Paul had revised the generally-accepted cosmology of his time. To me, he seems to be presupposing it rather than challenging it.

          • Iain Lovejoy

            I’m not suggesting he revised it at all – he assumes a terrestrial sky, the celestial spheres and God beyond that, in accordance with the conventional scheme – the point is that God’s heaven is outside both the earth and the physicak skies.

          • Oh, sorry I misunderstood you. The cosmology of Paul’s time does locate the realm of God above even the highest of the celestial spheres, as various accounts of celestial journeys, artistic depictions of this way of conceiving of the cosmos, and other sources all make clear. I had misunderstood you to be saying something else.

          • I think if you say “above” rather than “outside” it makes things clearer. The third heaven seems to clearly be a reference to the third of the seven that this cosmology posited.

          • Iain Lovejoy

            But if I said “above” rather than “outside” I wouldn’t be sneakily choosing my words so as to subtily support the point I was trying to make, now would I?

          • So you’re trying to give the impression you agree with me while secretly not? 🙂

  • John MacDonald

    The two-world idea does make a certain sense for Plato in a Philosophical context. Linguistically, In the statement “I am going to the store at 6:00pm,” as we know, a verb is a verb because it portrays tense (Latin for time), and the noun “store” is sort of outside of time, since 6:00 pm doesn’t modify the being of “store.” This seems to be Plato’s insight, since aetemitas [eternity] was thought along the lines of what is at the time, of that which is present. This can be drawn from the usage of the language: Ho aei Basileuon, [the king at the time, not the eternal king].

    Also, Plato would have wanted to argue against the agnosticism of Protagoras, and the pessimism of Homer regarding the afterlife. Reportedly, in his lost work, On the Gods, Protagoras wrote: “Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life.” Homer said in the Iliad that the great hero Achilles would have rather worked as someone’s peasant laborer rather than lord over all the wasted dead – not exactly views that were conducive to a happy populace.

  • яовэят ёскэят

    At Luke 3:21 the heaven has to “open” so that the Holy Spirit can come down in the form of a dove. It is emphasized that the Spirit is in “bodily form” as a dove, meaning that the Spirit is not always such a tangible object, but since on this occasion it is a physical bird, the solid dome of the sky had to crack open so that the dove can fly down (of course not from the lower heaven of clouds and planets but from the upper heaven on the other side of the dome).

  • Iain Lovejoy

    The first verse of the OT says God created the earth and the heavens, an impossibility if he is seen as having the physical heavens as his location ab initio. A distinction needs to be made between seeing God as inherently having a location as a being within the universe and taking up a location within it as a means of intervention into it.

    • The fact that (as most would render Genesis 1:1) “when God created heaven and earth,” God was starting with an earth covered by water, and fashioned a dome to create a division between the upper waters of the sky and the lower waters of the seas, which also created a region in between in which land-dwelling and sky-dwelling living things could exist. The text does indeed leave open where precisely God was thought to have dwelt prior to that.

      On the one hand, there is certainly a shift over time from a conception of God as dwelling on Mt. Horeb and the possibility of God not going with the Israelites into the promised land, to a God whose presence extends all the way from above the heavens to the depths of the earth. But even then, it is not that God’s presence and wisdom cease to be localized, it is that they are conceived of as more extensive.

      • Iain Lovejoy

        From memory Genesis 1:1 starts with a noun in the construct followed by a verb in the perfect, which may be rendered either “In the beginning when God created…” or “In the beginning when God had created…” according to context, followed by an “and” and then a series of noun clauses describing the state of the heavens and earth. Noun clauses are tenseless and their tense also has to be determined from the surrounding context, and are usually used circumstantially. Consecutive narrative only properly kicks off with an imperfect consecutive at the beginning of verse 2.
        The only way that I can see that it can be read without either either ignoring the construct or the “and” is to read the whole first verse as a circumstantial clause describing the heavens and earth immediately after God’s creation of them.
        I’m not really familiar with which books are older or theories as to previous versions etc, and I may be wrong, but accounts of Horeb / Sinai in the Bible have God descending on the mountain, not dwelling there permanently, and the only physical location described as a permanent dwelling of God on Earth is the Temple, and even here God is seen as descending on it from heaven. The Bible is otherwise pretty clear that God’s permanent residence is in “the heavens”, however understood, and the various sacred sites and holy grounds are meeting places between the heavens and earth (cf Jacob’s ladder) not physical locations on Earth for God.
        I vaguely recollect something about God not going into the promised land, but all the bits I can find refer pretty plainly to God not being with the Israelites in their initial invasion that fails, before the 40 years in the wilderness, because they were disobedient to God, not because it was too far as away from Mount Horeb. What are you referring to here?

        • Sorry for the delay in replying. What I’m referring to is actually the focus of this blog post of mine from back in 2008:
          https://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2008/05/leaving-god-behind.html

          • Iain Lovejoy

            It’s an interesting take on the Exodus story, and I have no idea whether the original story had God actually permanently located on Mount Sinai, but I don’t think Exodus as currently written really supports the idea. The story is clear that God descends on Mount Sinai (in the form of the cloud) for the purposes of meeting Moses from wherever it is conceived God actually dwells. God initially says the Israelites won’t have his direct presence with them when they go into the promised land, but then the story has him descending in that same cloud, in the same way, onto the Tent of Meeting instead. There’s no sense that I can see of God having to leave Mount Sinai to do so, as it, like every other place the Israelites encounter him, is only a place he temporarily sojourns for the purposes of their meeting him.

          • You may be right – I suppose that it is with the range of meaning of God’s statement that he will not go with them to the promised land that he will not descend to support them. But the descent onto Mount Sinai or the tent or tabernacle still envisages God as being properly located in a literal heaven/sky above and descending from there – bringing us back to our starting point!

          • Iain Lovejoy

            You’re right. The unknowable issue really is to what extent descending / ascending to heaven was seen as a straightforward physical journey (so that e.g. Elijah would need to duck to avoid a passing eagle on his way) or a conceptualising as “going up” of a journey from a down-on-earth “here” to an unknown “out there” beyond the bounds of ordinary physical reality.
            I would certainly maintain that God in the Bible is seen as dwelling in a heaven “beyond the skies” rather than “in the skies” (“skies” referring to the physical air and the solid vault / firmament above it) but that may still have been understood to an extent as a physical location.