Help: I’m on a slippery slope

Welcome to BL, @Lostnfound. I’m glad you landed here.

Your questions are on point and very important. Several people have already responded to some of them, I hope in helpful ways. I want to respond to the most basic thought you expressed in what I quoted above: why doesn’t a non-literal interpretation of [early] Genesis put everything else up for grabs?

I’ll make two points, then fade into the background.

(1) The first thing to do is to get the meaning of Genesis right. If we confine that simply to the first of the two creation stories, not the whole of Gen 1-11, then this is the single most important article I can recommend: https://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1984/JASA9-84Hyers.html

The author (now deceased) argued that the TRUE meaning of that story is simply that everything we see (not to mention some things we don’t see) is a creation of the one, true, invisible Creator. In its original historical, literary, and cultural context, the Hebrew creation story was saying precisely that much. Full Stop. This is the most helpful article I’ve ever read on this topic, yet I hadn’t heard any of this until I read it–several months after finishing my academic doctorate. Let me emphasize that again. Here I am now, someone who’s spent nearly 40 years studying Christianity and science (in one way or another), and yet I never heard these things until after my graduate studies were completed. This just goes to show how so many Christians have never been taught how to read Genesis One properly. That’s where the problem begins: we need to educate our young adults about how to read it properly, and why that matters.

(2) We need to stress the importance of a crucial principle of biblical interpretation–namely, that God meets us where we actually are, as historically and culturally embedded, finite and ignorant creatures. To put it bluntly, God “dumbs down” his knowledge in order that we might understand and lovingly obey the good news. It wasn’t God’s purpose to instruct us about the finer details of nature in some scientifically accurate manner. This is called the principle of accommodation, and it’s been widely used since Augustine and perhaps earlier. Calvin practically baptized the notion, it was so important to him; and Galileo couldn’t have kept his faith without it. In my experience, YECs reject this idea almost entirely. For them, if the words of the Bible don’t mean exactly what the bare words signify, then God becomes a “liar.” IMO, there is no more dangerous teaching (in the realm of science and the Bible) than this particular attitude.

Many of the atheists I converse with, ironically, sound just like my YEC friends. A famous example (though I do not know him personally) is astrophysicist Sean Carroll. I remember reading somewhere that he thinks the Bible is all fables b/c God got the science wrong. I hope I have not misrepresented his view, but even if I have I do know lots of people who believe just this. Those who say this are really being sophomoric, frankly: how could God (if he exists) communicate with us in any other way? Galileo understood this full well, but my atheist friends just don’t get this. Could God possibly explain quarks to ancient Hebrews? I very much doubt it. Furthermore, in a few centuries maybe no one will believe in quarks anymore–all we really know confidently is that science will surely change dramatically over time, such that many things in textbooks today won’t be in those future textbooks, except in historical sidebars, such as where one might find (say) the idea of an ether filling all of space in a sidebar today. So, on the premise that God must tell us the true truth about nature, how would we ever be able to believe that he did? Or, if we take it as axiomatic that he must do that, then how could we ever be confident that our interpretation of those texts could possibly be true, since God must know many things about nature that no human will ever know, let alone comprehend. So, you see where I’m going here…

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Again I want to thank you ALL for your thoughtful and loving responses!

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You seem to be taking a very all-or-nothing stance on things here. Whether or not the universe came into being in six short days a few thousand years ago — or longer still — has been on the table for a bit. And you could go on and on about that…I just got an earful from a young earther the other day and not sure where he got his facts. I took a course through a well respected museum specializing in ANE subjects. The course was nonsectarian. When we got to the part in the Hebrew Bible (as many call the OT in some circles) about Joseph, I noted the verse in Genesis that gives Joseph’s official Egyptian name. My instructor — seeing that verse for the first time — said, “Sounds Egyptian”. There are things in Genesis (and the books afterwards) that do have plausibility. Too long to discuss generally here. Hope others have more to say.

The Bible was not written to us but for us. I like yourself have always struggled with faith. So lets go over your questions.

1. How do you, friends, allow yourselves to question the precise stories, names and timelines in the primeval chapters of Genesis, while NOT doubting the even more miraculous stories of Jesus’s life, resurrection and promises? If Genesis is merely to convey ideas and not to factually report history, couldn’t the same be said of the Gospels?
Back in the times of when the Torah was written (the first 5 books of the Bible) it was common for stories or “myths” to be used to get a point across. Let’s take for example Genesis says “God created the universe in the Big Bang a very high density and high temperature state and it took billions of years for life to appear on earth”. It is still hard for modern society to comprehend the beginning of our universe think about trying to explain this to a group of people in the desert. So we can see that Genesis was a book written in a time when stories were meant to get a point across. You don’t find anything in Genesis about computers or Apple Watches but that does not mean we cant learn about God from Genesis that was written for the people then. The Gospels were eye witnesses accounts of Jesus and secular scholars and religious individuals know Jesus walked the Earth.

1. What about prophetic scripture? Can we take any of that as Truth and expect it to play out as reported? If so, why?

For this question lets look at the prophets describing Jesus. These prophecies were written centuries before Jesus walked on the Earth. The Messiah would be a Hebrew man (Isaiah 9:6) born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), a prophet akin to Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18), a priest in the order of Melchizedek (Pslam 110:4), a king (Isaiah 11:1-4), and the son of David (Matthew 22:42) who suffered before entering his glory (Isaiah 53). Jesus met each of these messianic requirements and more.Mathematically speaking, the odds of anyone fulfilling this amount of prophecy are staggering.
1 person fulfilling 8 prophecies: 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000 1 person fulfilling 48 prophecies: 1 chance in 10 to the 157th power 1 person fulfilling 300+ prophecies: Only Jesus!

Is this just another attempt by Satan to impede the spread of God’s Word? Why believe that there actually is a satan if Genesis isn’t taken literally? Perhaps every other reference to satan is also figurative?

You don’t need to know the correct meaning of Genesis to be saved. As long as you believe in Jesus and confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord you will be saved. Biologos teaches this and I don’t think Satan would want that to be taught.

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Nicely put, Laura…and thanks for the reference to “No, Modern Science is not ‘catching up’ to the Bible” ----interesting thoughts in that article.

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9 posts were split to a new topic: Are faith and reason opposite ways of understanding the world?

Many helpful comments have already been made, so rather than answer your questions specifically I’ll offer some general observations.

The tendency in dispensationalism, which is the dominant interpretive approach of conservative American Evangelicals, is to gauge faith by how literally someone is willing to interpret the Bible: the more literal they are willing to take any passage, the more faith they have. This is a horrendous mistake. It was not the approach of Jesus, who challenged the scribes to see Malachi 4:5 as fulfilled other than by the literal return of Elijah of old (Mt 11:14). Examples can be multiplied where Jesus was misinterpreted as speaking literally when he was speaking figuratively.

There is no rigid formula for determining where statements ought to be taken figuratively. It is a matter of assembling all the relevant evidence, both biblical and historical, applying God-give reason, and arriving at a conclusion that reflects spiritual discernment.

The original intent or understanding of the human writers of Scripture, so far as it can be inferred, is no guide. Many prophecies concerning Jesus, including those of the virgin birth, childhood sojourn in Egypt, and resurrection, certainly were not understood by the human writers or their contemporaries as they were later in light of the events of Jesus’s life (Isa 7:14-16; Hos 11:1; Ps 16:9-10). Daniel claimed not to understand what was revealed to him (Dan 12:8). Understanding of Scripture is progressive as God allows deeper or greater meanings to be discovered.

Concerning genealogies, you will notice in 1 Chron 2 that places such as “Behtlehem” are listed along with what appear to be actual persons without any distinction between them, as if they were all individuals. Clans are interspersed with individuals in the same way. In Genesis 10, the table of nations, clans and individual descendants are mixed, and it is not easy to tell in some instances whether individuals, groups, or simply inhabitants of certain geographical areas are being identified. These examples show that genealogies are not necessarily straightforward and leave lots of room for purposes other than family trees as we would construct them today.

On a plain sense reading of Genesis 3, no fallen angel is identified in the garden. The one who speaks to the woman is the serpent, one of the beasts of the field, period. There is not the slightest suggestion of “ventriloquism”; the serpent’s power of speech is left unexplained. When Jesus himself speaks of the cautious or shrewd nature of snakes, he is obviously refering to animals that naturally shy away from humans, not to demons (Mt 10:16). The curse on the serpent, which repeats the identification of it as an animal, is on the surface simply an explanation of the strange nature of snakes’ locomotion and their fraught relationship with human beings. Human beings find snakes weird and threatening, since some are venemous, and kill them by striking or crushing their heads. Snakes strike at humans most often in the lower leg or foot. Simple and plain.

Paul does not clearly identify the snake with Satan where he might have done so (2 Cor 11:3). Revelation 12:9 calls Satan “the old serpent,” but clearly he is figuratively, not literally, a dragon/serpent. The Pharisees were “serpents” because of their scheming and malicious natures. Satan is called a serpent for the same reason. Of all serpents in this figurative sense, Satan is the first and the original. Revelation’s identification need not be taken farther than that.

This does NOT mean I don’t see Satan implicated in Genesis 3. I absolutely see the devil implicated on a figurative level that is deeper than the surface story. The serpent is an appropriate symbol for wicked persons, whether spirit or human, because the animal secrets venom from the mouth, and intelligent deceivers secret their spiritual poison from the mouth, i.e., through lies. Somehow evil spirits are able to project evil suggestions toward the human mind. I don’t pretend to know exactly how this works, but obviously the first instance of it caused humans to turn away from God. As C. S. Lewis once wrote, whether this turning away from God involved a literal piece of fruit I don’t know, and I don’t think it is crucially important to know.

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I love your points about how we tend to gauge faith by how literal we are willing to interpret scripture, and that the original understanding of the authors is not the be-all-end-all of scripture’s meaning. Thanks!

Hi Ted, long time no see, since I was thrown off the ASA list. lol

Accommodation is logically unnecessary. First, neolithc farmers had the same IQ as we do. They were fully modern humans. Secondly, There are always ways to tell true but simplified scientifically accurate accounts. God could say, “Let the Earth bring forth living Creatures…” Which can be interpreted as the earth evolving life. When describing the solar system one doesn’t have to talk about geodesics of gravitation to simply say the earth goes around the sun.

One can claim that the Fall is not real because snakes don’t talk, but do we really believe that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.? If we don’t believe that, then certainly talking snakes are impossible. If we do believe that, then one must ask what powers do these spiritual forces have? Can they make a snake talk? Can God make Balaam’s donkey talk? If He can’t, then how can we believe that he can raise a man from the dead?

What I find lacking in accommodation is faith that God doesn’t tell falsehoods, and a wrong idea of the intelligence of humans in the Neolithic.or Iron age.

Intelligence would have nothing to do with it. Culture and knowledge is what necessitates accommodation - to all of us. If a math teacher uses calculus concepts to attempt to teach a group that hadn’t yet even heard of algebra, the teaching will be useless. If the teacher is attentive they will work first on arithmetic and then algebra foundations before proceeding to more advanced things. It isn’t that the pupils were less intelligent. They just hadn’t yet had the opportunity to know the more advanced things yet. Just as the ancients did not yet know what we now know about astronomy.

Thank God for accommodation. Without it we would not have a bible and any revelations we did “get” would be indecipherable to us as it would probably involve concepts we would have no idea about yet now. Accommodation is absolutely necessary and unavoidable in any relationship that involves communication … i.e. all of them.

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See, that is the point of my critique of accommodation—God didn’t have to use highly technical language to say something true but simplified. We do that all the time when teaching young kids. What we don’t do is say something false in the effort to teach them truth. So telling me how those people couldn’t understand things doesn’t match the facts as I see it. One can describe an accident in terms of momentum, strength of material, energy dissipation etc, or one can simplify it all and say the blue car hit the red car. Both descriptions are totally accurate. Accommodationalism ignores that there are ways God could have told a totally evolutionary story in Genesis 1 in a simplified manner. In fact, I think he did do that but people have their own positions that they prefer, which is fine, but still accommodationalism ignores what God could have done to avoid mixing his message with the falsehoods of the culture.

Accommodation as I have understood it is that God accommodates his message to the culture of the day, and lets false things remain in the message so the culture can understand what he is saying. That is what gives me the heebie jeebies about accommodationalism. It is a license for God to fib about nature and history. And if God fibs about that, is He fibbing about the story of redemption? Once we allow God to ‘accommodate’ his message to the false things in a culture, I see no way to stop the cycle of doubt that comes to my mind.

He could have, but that is not what he is trying to communicate. To put scientific meaning in the text is to add something that is not there, be it young or old earth ideas.

But here are many examples of incorrect scientific facts that are present, such as anatomical misconceptions, cosmological misconceptions, botanical misconceptions, etc which the Bible allows for the common beliefs of the day to stand uncorrected. The problem comes when we try to read the Bible as something it is not and read into it things that it is not saying.

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We do this all the time! I lie to beginning physics students by telling them that gravity is constant (be it 9.81 m/s^2 or just 9.8 or even just 10) depending on context. What they are not ready to hear yet is that actually gravity decreases according to the inverse square law of distance, but that fact makes little difference in the context of “local” gravity and so is neglected so that we aren’t suddenly turning their early physics problems into calculus problems. But then even when we do account for that, I am still lying to them as gravity is really a hopeless many-body mishmash of vectors adding together and not originating from one perfectly uniform sphere. But those new facts make problems hopelessly complicated and besides are unnecessary for their success in basic understandings. Good students come to understand that education is always an accommodating (and therefore technically false - but very useful) oversimplification so that they can actually learn good things and [presumably] come closer to truth.

I never tire of this Asimov quote:

When people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

Here is an earlier thread where I wrote more on this very topic.

Probably much more enlightening to you, though, if you take the time to read through all of it is this Ted Davis essay on Galileo, history, and accommodation.

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JPM wrote:

He could have, but that is not what he is trying to communicate. To put scientific meaning in the text is to add something that is not there, be it young or old earth ideas…

But here are many examples of incorrect scientific facts that are present, such as anatomical misconceptions, cosmological misconceptions, botanical misconceptions, etc which the Bible allows for the common beliefs of the day to stand uncorrected. The problem comes when we try to read the Bible as something it is not and read into it things that it is not saying

Well, I would suggest there is a big difference between what is purported to be a statement by God, in Genesis and a statement by Elihu in Job or similar situations. What Elihu and people say can be perfectly in error, and is merely recorded as a fact that they said what they did. If we take, say Genesis 1 as representing the order of created things, we have great problems because it would imply God didn’t have a clue about what happened at creation and God is the one making all the statements in Genesis 1. Can’t blame error on others unless you say God didn’t really speak in Genesis, effectively saying Genesis 1 is the product of a human mind not representing God at all. In which case bad conclusions can be drawn about the nature of this religion. And IF one says that the statements of God in Genesis 1 are not from God, of course, this immediately would raise the question of whether the statements of God in Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Pentateuch etc are really statements by God or are figments of human ingenuity.

We can also differentiate what God said vs how the humans might have understood what he said. But to say that statements of God show no knowledge of the creation event in my mind makes it unlikely that this God is really the creator. After all, He is the only one who witnessed the event.

Hi Mervin, I read your old post on the Cheyenne and I know Ted, although he probably wouldn’t recognize me under the gbob moniker. Again, I would bring up the argument in my last post on this thread. If things in the Bible which start with “And God said…” are not true, and God claims elsewhere that He is truth, and we are told he doesn’t lie.

Hebrews 6:18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie

or
Titus 1:2 which God, who does not lie

And if God lies, i.e. doesn’t tell the truth, then God owes Annanias an apology.

I simply think that theology should fit logically together. Making God say false things means God can’t be trusted to tell us the path to salvation. Period. In human societies, once a court witness is found out to be a purjuror, his entire testimony is thrown out as a lie. Why would we treat God differently when it is HE who tells us don’t bear false witness?

Amen to that! And of course God is a God of truth as well - I should think all who are believers would agree. What I wrote in the post above of teaching my students a “lie”, I don’t really mean that in any malicious sense. I’m not trying to deceive them but to use the necessary means to bring them closer to truth. I use words like “lie” or “falsehood” for provocative effect (or to respond in kind to words already chosen by you or others), but I should probably refrain from doing so.

So why then do you persist in making God say false things by twisting scriptures into teaching something scriptures simply don’t teach? It is precisely because we believe that God is a God of truth - all truth that we don’t accept understandings of scriptures that plainly are not true. God is teaching them (and still us today) the things we need and can handle as any perfect teacher would.

Have you thought about the arrogance inherent to the view that would deny accommodation today? Think about this: To insist that the only truly spoken word would have to be scientifically convincing to us specifically today is to say that we, and we alone in all of history have finally arrived. Our understanding is now so complete that we alone are ready to hear the unvarnished, (no details neglected, no complexities left unaccounted - “unaccommodated” to put this in your terms) that we are the only generation that would truly understand God’s activity fully in every mechanical detail. You cannot allow that our present understandings still leave room for significant growth, but then simultaneously think that God should have accommodated to 2019 understandings. Because if we still don’t know everything, then the truly straight-talking God would have to accommodate to the better future understandings (lest he fall afoul your charge of lying to us); but then what we would hear would be confusion since we wouldn’t yet understand what is being taught (we being stuck for the moment in 2019 and all.) So on your scheme of things, you have ruled out any possibility of God’s word being effective: Either God must be - on your terms - totally truthful (in which case he is a horrible teacher that cannot connect with any audience but a practically omniscient one), or else God must be a liar because, as a good teacher he went to the effort of connecting with his actual audience [accommodation].

I reject that as a false dichotomy, of course, because it has neither truth nor scriptures to support it. God must be the best teacher and as such would show and teach us what it is we need for where we are to help draw us closer to him. And that teaching for us comes in the form of a person: Christ, who is the master accommodation of it all, who …“being found in human form, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death …”

And as such, it behooves us to attend to his teaching and not try to make it into things that he would not affirm. He did make creative use of scriptures to be sure, and so there is some precedent for us to follow as we may and even do the same, but always guided by his Spirit. Which means we are not allowed to make just any use of scriptures we may please, such as insisting that early Genesis must teach accurate science before we can take it seriously. We would never do such a thing to Christ’s teachings (like thinking the prodigal parable an untrustworthy teaching unless it actually historically happened). So we must emphatically reject any attempts to force the rest of scriptures through that same modernist agenda that contends to be the philosophical gatekeeper of your mind. I reject that gatekeeper. And you should fire him too as he continues to do you a great disservice.

[edited]

[continued thoughts…] If I may presume to renovate my parting “gatekeeper” metaphor above, milking it for even further use if indeed it’s of any use at all - Let me retract my advice that he be dismissed. Scientific skepticism is a great gatekeeper to keep around so long as he doesn’t aspire to more domains than that for which he’s fitted. So the one who would presumptuously begin to annex other domains where the questions become harder, higher, more interesting, and indeed more important - that gatekeeper needs to be demoted and put back in his proper place where he does good service. He need not fear that he must take over other realms of love or meaning, philosophy or religion in order to be seen as important - certainly not in the Christian mind. The material world is God’s creation and thus should enjoy promotion rather than demotion on the strength of its creaturely status. But I see now that you have another response posted, so having repented (partly) of my suggested abuse of your ‘gatekeeper’, I’ll stop here to read on.

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It is hard to respond to a post that asserts I twist the scripture which doesn’t give precise details where you think I am twisting things. I suspect I know but to save us all times, tell me specifically to what you refer.

LOL, my view of the accommodationalist position is that it effectively gives up on the Bible before doing thorough thinking through the issues. You didn’t respond, I noticed to the problem I see in making what God said in Genesis 1 not true (that is no concordance with science or history). That problem is that how would we know if other places where it says: The Lord said… are actually true or not, leading to a collapse in our ability to believe God said anything at all.

So, I would appreciate it if you would tell me what you think I am twisting and I will respond to that, but also would appreciate it if you would engage with my argument about the veracity or lack there of in Biblical statements that start with “The Lord said…”

I do not think God was trying to communicate science in Genesis or elsewhere in the Bible. Apparently you do. Is that correct? If so, I can understand your point that it places you in danger of…

And that, is why such an interpretation is potentially disastrous to faith.

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God doesn’t teach us untrue things in Genesis 1 or 2 or anywhere else. You draw untrue things out of it when you try to make it teach things it doesn’t. Our [My] quibble here isn’t with scriptures. It’s with what you put forward as the way they must be understood.

Why would you give special privilege to statements that began that way? Isn’t that to already admit the germ of what you are trying to reject? That all of scriptures are true (and true on your terms and understandings, no less)?

In any case, though, my objections written of so far here is on the general level of you not accepting that God accommodates to humanity in scriptures, which if consistently applied would reduce to absurdity countless passages. What I really suspect, though, is that you don’t consistently apply any thorough-going “non-accommodationism” but have probably already smuggled a good bit of accommodation even while you may deny it. E.g. I’m sure you don’t believe in a geocentric universe or an unmoving earth, etc. To do so (as well as to interpret Genesis 1 and 2 as mechanical cosmological commentary) are all what I would put forward as examples of twisting scriptures to a modernist agenda.

On reflection of most of my exchanges here tonight, I seem to be putting a quite confrontational foot forward - which is perhaps questionable behavior (at best) for a moderator. I quite often set my ‘moderator’ hat aside here to function as just another participant. You seem to be taking it pretty well and are showing exemplary patience with me in that regard, and for that I thank you. Not that I’m trying to end this discussion - I’ll gladly further respond as your interest may continue. You obviously have struck a chord with me here that winds up my clock! :mantelpiece_clock: So if you had a specific “The Lord said …” statement in mind that you want more commentary on, just let me know. I looked back and couldn’t find where you mentioned anything specifically in that regard. So my objections were just over your apparent rejection of all accommodation.

No, God’s purpose wasn’t to write a science book, but where he touches on topics that involve science, like the creation, what he says should be true.

As to the interpretation being disastrous, you seem to have missed the point that it comes from what I see as the logical outcome of making the statements of God about creation untrue. It comes as a logical outcome of accommodationalism as far as I am concerned.