Hey, Hallquist, want to give me a one-sentence long early Christmas present?

Hey, Hallquist, want to give me a one-sentence long early Christmas present? November 29, 2012

Yesterday, I wrote a little response to Chris Hallquist’s open call for comments on his book draft.  Turns out I had misunderstood how big a claim Chris was making, which he helpfully clarified in a comment, and I’m sure the finished work will help prevent people from making my mistake.  I only had two other issues worth commenting on with the chapter, one that’s picayune, and one that’s probably beyond the scope of what Hallquist is trying to do in this chapter.  First things first:

Chris mentions that Aquinas and Augustine believed the Bible was inerrant (true!) as a rebuttal to the claim that some fundamentalist claims are recent enough to be written off.  Thankfully, he goes on to clarify in the next paragraph:

I need to point out that inerrancy should not be confused with “literalism” about the Bible. Talk of “literalism” is misleading. Among Christians who’ve thought about the issue, few if any think that everything in the Bible is to be taken literally. Even young earth creationists—that is, people who accept the literal truth of statements in the Bible which imply the Earth is roughly several thousand years old—do not (with a few exceptions) take the Bible literally when it implies the Earth is flat. And while some creationists reject not only Darwin but also Galileo, others accept that the Bible is not to be taken literally when it implies the Sun goes round the Earth rather than the reverse.

Not only do young earthers use the Bible this way, some are perfectly clear about what they’re doing. For example, young earth creationist Josh McDowell, rather than say we must take everything in the Bible literally, says that passages can be interpreted figuratively only if we can “find a good reason in the passage to justify interpreting figuratively” [11]. This makes “literalism” a misleading term, even when talking about Christians whose interpretation of the Bible is more literal than most.

Merci! But since you brought up Aquinas and Augustine, I’d be pretty happy if you used those guys in this section and contrasted them a little with the Young Earth Creationist’s vague “figuratively.” Just a single sentence that mentions the four kinds of interpretation these guys used, so people don’t have a very specific sense of ‘literalism’ and a super-unspecific sense of not!literalism.

Otherwise, I think a casual reader is going to think you’re making an equivalence between Aquinas’s methodology and your Young Earther, and then us Catholics are going to have a sad, especially when we argue with someone who read this section and then picked a fight with us.

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  • Lukas

    Here’s what the Church fathers actually thought about the interpretation of the creation in Genesis: http://www.catholic.com/tracts/creation-and-genesis

    • Pseudonym

      I’ll go you one further: Every historic Christian theologian of sufficient significance, from any mainstream tradition, who has expressed an opinion on the matter, understood Genesis 1 to be at least partly non-literal. This includes some names you may not expect, like John Calvin.

      • This is false. St. Basil the Great seems to have taken it quite literally. Contrariwise, I’m told his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa didn’t think the 6 days were days at all, but were symbolic of the intrinsic order of the created world.


        • dbp


          I’ve not read Basil’s Hexaemeron, but I’m skimming and not seeing immediately what you are referring to. The first Homily is just on the fact of the creation of the universe by God rather than it being eternal and uncaused, which doesn’t demand literalism.

          The second Homily actually calls for a reading of the words informed by correct doctrine (that is, not precisely as they seem to sound): “But the corrupters of the truth, who, incapable of submitting their reason to Holy Scripture, distort at will the meaning of the Holy Scriptures, pretend that these words [‘The earth, was invisible and unfinished.’] mean matter.” Basil obviously sees the obvious necessity to interpret the simple statement of the account to discern what (he asserts) is actually meant.

          Later in that same Homily he discusses the description of the first day as one day; and although he does discuss 24 hours, he doesn’t emphasize that the important point of “one” is that it was 24 hours and no more. Rather, he is describing how the 24 hours of a day encompass both the light and the dark portions of time sufficient to come around to form a complete cycle that, when repeated, endure indefinitely. In his own words, “Such is also the character of eternity, to revolve upon itself and to end nowhere. If then the beginning of time is called ‘one day’ rather than ‘the first day,’ it is because Scripture wishes to establish its relationship with eternity.” This is precisely the kind of allegorical interpretation Pseudonym is referring to.

          You might point to Homily II, where he says, “But as far as concerns the separation of the waters I am obliged to contest the opinion of certain writers in the Church who, under the shadow of high and sublime conceptions, have launched out into metaphor, and have only seen in the waters a figure to denote spiritual and incorporeal powers…. Let us reject these theories as dreams and old women’s tales. Let us understand that by water water is meant; for the dividing of the waters by the firmament let us accept the reason which has been given us.”

          But here he isn’t talking about a dome of continuous liquid comparable to the ocean. A few paragraphs earlier he just stated, and seems to assume as a prerequisite for his assessment of the literalness of the word ‘water,’ the following (broadly correct) scientific knowledge:

          “Since, then, Scripture says that the dew or the rain falls from heaven, we understand that it is from those waters which have been ordered to occupy the higher regions. When the exhalations from the earth, gathered together in the heights of the air, are condensed under the pressure of the wind, this aerial moisture diffuses itself in vaporous and light clouds; then mingling again, it forms drops which fall, dragged down by their own weight; and this is the origin of rain. When water beaten by the violence of the wind, changes into foam, and passing through excessive cold quite freezes, it breaks the cloud, and falls as snow. You can thus account for all the moist substances that the air suspends over our heads.”

          I don’t have time to dig further, but to me it seems like he chooses to hew close to what is written, but not to take each word literally and without regard for the conventional means of knowledge available through science. I do not mean to say that he disbelieved in the creation of the world in 144 hours, only that he clearly seems to accept the need to interpret Scripture as truth necessarily consonant with the truths revealed in the natural world.

          Since no one had in Basil’s time had any hint at the history of the universe, one could reasonably believe anything at all about its creation. There just weren’t enough facts known to tie those accounts to scientific understanding. But here he does exhibit an interest in tying the understanding of revelation to natural truth, so however literally he might have taken it out of ignorance, his method of interpretation doesn’t come across to me as at all fundamentalist in the sense we use it now. It rather seems to mesh with Pseudonym’s assertion.

          But again, I haven’t studied this extensively. Is there something else you are referring to?

          • dbp

            Sorry, typo: the part about water is from Homily III, not II, in section 8.

          • Pseudonym

            Needless to say, I agree. I’d add that there are several such examples. For example, in Homily V, Basil pointed out that we know that not all plants are seed-bearing, and responded that “seed” can be understood figuratively for, say, bulbous plants.

            Basil may have done it less than most, but he did take Genesis 1 figuratively when he felt it important.

        • dbp

          Out of interest, when I had a few more minutes, I did a search to find out why Basil is associated with Biblical literalism, and found primarily site (e.g. this one) that referenced the exact passage I happened to quote in my earlier reply. But if you look at the context for this, and even look at the document you provided from Gregory of Nyssa, you can see that as much of the discussion on this particular point is about science, not scripture. He is discussing what was essentially the result of the scientific consensus of his day– the essences and their respective relationships and motions– and framing his understanding of Scripture within that understanding.

          That Basil was conversant in the mathematics, physics, and philosophy of his day in addition to Scriptural analysis is abundant. That he interpreted some passages as literal does not in any way demonstrate that he felt he was compelled to do so, and indeed he seems to have in a number of cases departed from the first-glance meaning of the words.

          I was perfectly prepared to accept your description of Basil, and went to read your links as a matter of simple curiosity. But, in fact, he seems not at all to demonstrate that Pseudonym’s assertion is false. Even where Basil does take Genesis literally, it wouldn’t prove that mainstream Christianity has a strong history of ignoring science in favor of blind submission to the Bible. Rather the opposite.

          I wouldn’t be surprised if you can find examples of people who might prove your point, but so far Basil doesn’t seem to be your man. Perhaps there’s a passage of his that I’m missing?

  • deiseach

    You certainly don’t want sad Catholics cluttering up the place, singing the “Stabat Mater” and clutching pictures of the Mater Dolorosa and Our Lady of the Seven Dolours 🙂

    From St. Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine, Book III, Chapter 5”:

    “Chapter 5.— It is a Wretched Slavery Which Takes the Figurative Expressions of Scripture in a Literal Sense.

    9. But the ambiguities of metaphorical words, about which I am next to speak, demand no ordinary care and diligence. In the first place, we must beware of taking a figurative expression literally. For the saying of the apostle applies in this case too: “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” For when what is said figuratively is taken as if it were said literally, it is understood in a carnal manner. And nothing is more fittingly called the death of the soul than when that in it which raises it above the brutes, the intelligence namely, is put in subjection to the flesh by a blind adherence to the letter. For he who follows the letter takes figurative words as if they were proper, and does not carry out what is indicated by a proper word into its secondary signification; but, if he hears of the Sabbath, for example, thinks of nothing but the one day out of seven which recurs in constant succession; and when he hears of a sacrifice, does not carry his thoughts beyond the customary offerings of victims from the flock, and of the fruits of the earth. Now it is surely a miserable slavery of the soul to take signs for things, and to be unable to lift the eye of the mind above what is corporeal and created, that it may drink in eternal light.”

    • grok87

      great quote, thanks!

  • Alexander Anderson

    This is why I have qualms with a general anti-religion sort of book. When you get down to it, you’re fighting such a vast array of positions that either you’ll only adequately address one or two, or you’ll paint so broadly that you won’t address any of them. I couldn’t imagine trying to do the same sort of thing against atheism. Even if I adequately addressed, say, a positivist sort of atheist who denies existence of the supernatural for reasons of lack of physical evidence, I would have to complete basically a whole other work within a work to address the claims of a Nietzschean or Existentialist atheist if I am going to do them any justice.

    • Brandon

      But really, all you have to do to demonstrate that all atheists are quite wrongheaded is provide actual evidence of a deity. At a minimum, such evidence would make agnosticism a requisite shift for clear thinking atheists.

      • Alexander Anderson

        This isn’t really true. Depending on where the atheist in question is coming from, what would count as evidence for one atheist might not for another atheist. Say I went out and found some empirical evidence for some sort of god. Some atheists would have to take that pretty seriously, but others, such as those who see science as nothing but a cultural construct could easily dismiss me. That’s not even taking into account that one could probably come up with a theory that accounts for whatever empirical evidence I found that wouldn’t include any gods. Things are rarely as simple as piling evidence on two sides of a debate and weighing it.

        • keddaw

          True, but then you’d have (former) atheists on your side and could happily leave the fight to them. After all, they are the ones who have been going on about following the evidence wherever it may lead, so let them take the fight to the holdouts.

  • To be fair, it’s difficult to know excactly what the 1st century Christians did believe, since the Catholic church had a habit of detroying documents that disagreed with them, & murdering (let’s face it, that’s what it was) any people who disagreed with them. There are a few things we do know, like the ressurection being a last day event, since that is exactly what Martha believed in John 11, & Jesus didn’t correct her theology, this is evidence that what Jesus taught isn’t necessarily what the Catholic church teaches. It would then be reasonable to assume that a) the Roman Catholic Church isn’t a good moral authority (unless you consider the body that would stand as the worlds most successful mass murderer to be moral) and b) it isn’t necessarily a good representation of Jesus teachings. If it is niether of these, then what makes it useful to find out what the early church, who was supposed to have represented God as a moral authority actually believed. By the time Augustine and Aquinas came along, much would probably have been been corrupted or destroyed by a church state bent on destroying anyone or thing that was remotely contrary to it..

    • Brandon B

      I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “the resurrection being a last day event” isn’t what the Catholic Church teaches.

      Are you interpreting “resurrection on the last day” to mean that people will be resurrected at the end of the world, and only then? I could see an interpretation of this that excludes the possibility of going to heaven (and/or purgatory) right after death, such that people who die early just wait around until the world ends. Is this what you mean?

      If so, then the fact that heaven is outside of time (whatever that means) would solve any inconsistency. I’m not sure what eternity is like, but I think that concepts like “before” and “after” wouldn’t work the same way if we’re removed from time. Thus, there is no problem of people be resurrected and coming to heaven “before” the last day, because “before” is not a workable concept in eternity.

      • Ohtobide

        The usual interpretation of the general resurrection among Catholics has been that everyone goes at death to Hell, Heaven (with, in most cases, some time in Purgatory first), or Limbo and they stay there without bodies until the end of the world. Then everyone gets a body when the present world ends.

        I am not sure about the idea of being outside time. God is certainly seen as outside time but I don’t think the Catholic church teaches that human beings ever are.

    • Ted Seeber

      Are you reading the same story in John 11 that I am?

      It seems to me that Jesus *did* contradict her, quite directly, by raising her brother from the dead in front of her- a resurrection that if it happened at all, certainly did not happen “on the last day”. Likewise, if you have current Catholic understanding that “the last day” refers not to time as it is in this universe, but rather the eternity experienced in Heaven (being “with God”, not a space in four dimensional material physics) or Hell (being “without God”, also not a space in four dimensional material physics) then of course all believers will be with God on the Last Day ( having been converted, through purgatory, into what one atheist once described to me as “mindless praisebots”- which leads me to suspect that Hell on Earth is *exactly* what the Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking for).

      • keddaw

        If hell is simply being without god then sign me right up. I, and many others, seem to manage just fine and are perfectly upstanding members of our communities and we have the benefit of being able to argue for and against laws using logic and reason rather then ‘because I read it in a book’.

        • Ohtobide


          Unfortunately Hell is not simply being without God. Besides the absence of God the damned also suffer the pain of sense (poena sensus). In other words, we will be tortured.

          However, some theologians have taught that the damned get time off from the pain now and then. So we will have holidays to look forward to.

    • Brandon, as Ohtobide points out, people don’t become eternal. I agree that eternity is outside of time, but Isaiah’s references to New Moon’s and Sabbaths in the New Heaven and the New Earth, in the closing lines of his book attest to the idea that people will still experience time in the afterlifeN even if eternity itself isn’t time at all, which I agree with.

      Ted, you seem to have ignored what I actually said, which was that Jesus didn’t correct her theology, which he didn’t “keep up.” The references by Jesus in both John 11 and in the synoptic Gospels over another incident attest to the fact that Jesus didn’t seem to think people were pushing off to wherever they’re supposed to be going. The Bible actually has 57 of those references to death as sleep, and of course we couldn’t just assume they meant exactly what they said. The whole problem really is this idea of separation of body and soul, which doesn’t seem too well supported, there are texts that refer to the spirit (breath in Hebrew) retuning to God, but we (and the Greeks and Hebrews) had different words for the soul (being/creature) and spirit (breath). Jesus and Elijah both ascended bodily; Moses slept, but according to Jude Machael and Satan contended over his body not soul, we don’t really know what Enoch’s tranlation involved, but we can’t just assume it was any different from Elijah’s. Matthew referers to the body going to Hell in chapter 5. If we assume that the Biblical writers actually knew what they were talking about then the presence of a body is evidence against presence in Heaven or Hell.

      As for Hell eternal, the “for ever and ever” in Revelation is a dynamic translation from “unto the ages of the age” in modern terms “for ages.” In Greek, the age is a finite unit of time, so it doesn’t really help with a no time eternity Hell. Romans 6:23 and John 3:16 make it pretty clear, death or life, not life here or life there. John actually uses the word perish (in the Greek too) which refers to not only being dead, but perishing involves decaying to no existence. Obadiah tells the Edomites they’d become as if they had never been, in which case, according to you, they got off lightly, but according to the writings of first century Christians, they got what everyone gets.

      You could cite texts refering to everlasting fire, which is excatly what Hebrews tells us God is, it just doesn’t say people will burn for the same length of time as the fire. I really don’t think the RCC is nearly as reliable a witness to the first century beliefs as the people who actually lived there, and anyone who could read the Bible unfettered by preconcienved ideas would sturggle to get a never ending eternal Hell out of it.

  • Ohtobide


    Could you explain what you mean by your post? After all, the Catholic church does teach that the general resurrection will occur at the end of the world. I just don’t know what you mean by ‘the body that would stand as the worlds most successful mass murderer’.

    Alexander Anderson,

    You are quite right. How is it possible to argue against everyone?

    However, if I were to take on only Aquinas, as an example, I would point out that he did think that there was a time when there was only one human being on earth, he did think that the first woman was made out of the rib of the first man, he did think that the first couple were immortal and lived in a world without suffering and he did think that they were expelled from this paradise because of their decision to disobey God. That sounds literal enough to me.

    Btw, the other 3 ways of interpreting scripture did not mean that the literal way of interpreting it was not true

    • Who’s to resurrect? They all got resurrrected at death. What I really meant is that assuming that we actually need the RCC (which is an incredibly successful mass murderer inquistion, crusades, but I suppose I may have exadurated) to tell us how to interpret something that we can just as well read and interpret ourselves. I used the issue of resurrection simply because it was so obvious to me as a teen that there’s some huge contradiction between what the Bible says about Hell, and what most churches teach. There are also a number of logical problems, but that doesn’t generally bother the religious.

  • R.C.

    Don’t just “try” to read the Bible as its original authors intended it to be read. DO it.

    (As Yoda said, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”)

    …time passes…

    2000 years later: “I find R.C.’s quotation of Yoda to indicate he was a Star Wars literalist.”

    • jenesaispas

      Pretty funny.