2019 Letters to a Creationist, Part 1: Bible Interpretation

Preface for blog: Earlier this year I had a discussion with an evangelical Christian woman who I will call Rachel (not her real name). She had recently learned that I endorse modern scientific findings in geology (the earth is old) and biology (today’s fauna, including humans, physically evolved from earlier life-forms), and that I have no problem squaring that with the Bible’s teachings. She sent me links to some videos that she and her husband had made, where they presented scientific and exegetical arguments in favor of young earth (Y.E.) creationism, and invited my comments.

It has been experience that once someone gets committed to Y.E. creationism, it is usually impossible to have them change their mind. No matter how much of their best evidence for a young earth that I refute, and no matter how much evidence for an old earth I present, they end up waving it all away. Nevertheless, I decided to run an experiment with Rachel. She is intelligent and good-willed, with some familiarity with science, and (unlike my typical encounters on the internet) she knew me personally to be a devout, Bible-honoring Christian.

So I took some time to compose this email (reproduced below, with a few wording changes) to address the issue of Bible interpretation, and also another document addressing many of the scientific claims made in her videos. I will share that other document as my next post here (“2019 Letters to a Creationist,Part 2”). I hoped that by showing that these “evidences” she relied on for a young earth do not hold up upon inspection, I might get her to reconsider her commitment to Y.E. creationism.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hi Rachel,
I did listen to all three of your video presentations. You did a fine job presenting many of the relevant scriptures, and also sharing young earth perspectives on some scientific issues.

It seems like you are interested in my comments, so I will share some thoughts here. This is not in the spirit of who is right and who wrong, but to perhaps help you understand how another devout Christian can have a very different opinion on some of these matters.

First, I’d like to make it clear that I am not criticizing anyone who holds to Young Earth (YE) creationism. When I refer to “YE creationists”, I mean YE advocate groups like Answers in Genesis and Institute for Creation Research who promote this viewpoint, not the millions of lay people who go along with what these organizations promote.

There are some picky details involved with the scientific issues, so I will address those in a separate word document. In this email, I will share some of my thoughts on the Bible interpretation issue.

I think a key issue is the extent to which it is appropriate to use observations of the physical world to influence our interpretation of the scripture. I think somewhere in the videos the question was asked whether science can trump the plain sense of the scripture. I will note that this is not an issue of whether the Bible is inspired and authoritative, but an issue of how to interpret it.

The approach taken by YE creationism is to elevate their particular literal interpretation of Genesis over any possible physical evidence. This is stated, for instance, in the preface to the book that launched modern YE creationism, The Genesis Flood, authors Whitcomb and Morris reveal the basis of their thinking:

We believe that the Bible, as the verbally inspired and completely inerrant Word of God, gives us a true framework of historical and scientific interpretation, as well as of so-called religious truth. This framework is one of special creation of all things, complete and perfect in the beginning, followed by the introduction of a universal principle of decay and death into the world after man’s sin, culminating in a worldwide cataclysmic destruction of the “world that then was” by the Genesis Flood. We take this revealed framework of history as our basic datum, and then try to see how all the pertinent data can be understood in this context…the real issue is not the correctness of the interpretation of various details of the geological data, but simply what God has revealed in His Word concerning these matters.

On this telling, the authors hold that the earth was recently created, that decay and death only entered the world following Adam’s apple, and all terrestrial life was drowned apart from the humans and animals on Noah’s ark. Knowing this to be the case, they feel justified in distorting or ignoring whatever physical evidence points to an old earth – they know that old-earth evidence must be invalid, so they need give it no credence: “We take this revealed framework of history as our basic datum, and then try to see how all the pertinent data can be understood in this context.”

Their fundamental mistake is assuming that a verbally inspired, authoritative Word of God must always be correct in its statements concerning the physical world. This assumption drives the whole agenda of YE creationism. I respect the pious motivations behind this approach, but it is simply wrong. That is not the way hermeneutics actually works. Various examples can be adduced which demonstrate that Scriptural statements about the physical world, which were appropriate and meaningful for the original audience, can be incorrect according to modern knowledge. To take a simple example, Jesus taught:

“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” [Mark 4:30-32 NIV].

The literal statement here is that the mustard seed is the “smallest of all seeds on earth”. The mustard seed was indeed the smallest seed that ancient Galilean farmers were familiar with, so this was a useful illustration for that audience for the growth of the kingdom from tiny beginnings. Modern naturalists have found other plant seeds which smaller than the mustard seed. If a Bible literalist were truly consistent, he should respond, “I don’t care what those godless scientists say, Jesus said that the mustard seed was the smallest seed, and that’s that. This is the infallible Word of God, so every statement regarding the natural world must be correct.” (That is what YE creationists do with Genesis). Most Christians understand that this parable was not really intended to teach horticultural facts; to obsess over whether Jesus taught “error” here would be to entirely miss the point of the passage.

The Bible often presents spiritual or moral teachings in the form of stories or imagery which are not literally true. It is true that the simplest, most literal readings of Genesis 1-3 and other passages point to a recent creation. However, it is also true that the simple, literal meanings of many Biblical passages show that the earth is stationary, and the sun and other celestial objects revolve around the earth. These verses include Psalm 104:5 (“He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved”), Ps. 93:1 (“Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved”), I Chron. 16:30 (“The world also is firmly established, It shall not be moved”), the philosophical discourse of Eccl.1:5 (“The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose”), and also the historical chronicle of Josh. 10:13:

So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the people had revenge upon their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.

In the 1500s and 1600s, the literal interpretation of these passages was seen as an essential element of Christian belief. Here is what John Calvin in his sermon on 1 Corinthians 10-11 had to say about those monstrous, malicious, devil-possessed people who claim that the earth “shifts and turns”:

We will see some who are so deranged, not only in religion but who in all things reveal their monstrous nature, that they will say that the sun does not move, and that it is the earth which shifts and turns. When we see such minds we must indeed confess that the devil possesses them, and that God sets them before us as mirrors, in order to keep us in his fear. So it is with all who argue out of pure malice, and who happily make a show of their imprudence.

This is the sort of accusation that today’s YE creationists make against those who teach that evolution is compatible with biblical Christianity.

Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine, a prosecutor of Galileo, stated in 1615: “…to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the center of the heavens and the earth revolves swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.” Note the words: “…injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.” That is what today’s YE creationists say about an old earth and evolution, i.e. that these concepts injure our faith and make the sacred scripture false.

Galileo did not dispute that the literal teaching of the Bible was of a stationary earth; he just argued that we need to take a non-literal interpretation, in order to remove the apparent conflict with science. As he put it, “The Bible shows the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

Practically every Bible commentary since 1800 offers explanations of why these passages which depict a stationary earth need not be taken literally. Is this because our exegetical skills or our command of the Hebrew language are superior to everyone living before that time? No, it is because by 1800 nearly everyone accepted what the scientists had been telling them about these aspects of the physical world. Once this physical picture was accepted, the theologians took a fresh look at the issue and found that, lo and behold, a literal acceptance of a stationary earth was not essential to the Christian faith after all.

Nowadays most evangelical Christians will say, obviously these verses were not supposed to be taken literally. Obviously, these passages reflect the thinking and language of ancient times, and obviously were not intended for making authoritative statements about the physical world. But that is only “obvious” after one has accepted the physical evidence that the earth moves, and has recognized that it is proper to use the information we get from God’s creation to help interpret the meaning of the scriptural texts.

There was an earlier, lesser-known controversy over the “firmament” in Genesis 1. The simple, straightforward meaning of Genesis 1:6-7 and 1:14-18….

6 And God said, “Let there be a vault [Hebrew raqia ]between the waters to separate water from water.” 7 So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. …. 14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good.

….is that God created some sort of thin, solid dome (raqia) in the midst of the primeval waters. This separated the waters below, the oceans, from a great mass of liquid water (not vapor) up above the dome of the sky. God then set the sun and moon into this dome. The Hebrew root for raqia (often translated “firmament” or “expanse”) is the verb raqa. According to the standard Hebrew lexicon of Brown, Driver, and Briggs, raqa means to “beat, stamp, beat out, stamp out”. It is typically applied to metal being beaten out into a thin sheet (e.g. Is. 40:19, Ex. 39:3, Num. 17:4, Jer. 10:9; cf. Num 17:3). Thus, raqia (“firmament”) denotes something which has been beaten out or spread out, like a sheet of metal. Brown, Driver, and Briggs define raqia as, “extended surface, (solid) expanse.” This was not empty space or atmosphere.

The folks best placed to understand the meaning of the ancient Hebrew text would be the ancient Hebrews themselves. The Septuagint translation of Genesis into Greek was done by Jewish scholars around 300 B.C. The Septuagint translators rendered raqia as “stereoma” which connotes solidity, not an empty space. The Latin translations of this passage followed the Septuagint’s lead in rendering this word as “firmamentum,” which again connotes solidity. The King James version retained this usage (“firmament”), while modern translations render it as “expanse” to better mesh with today’s science.

The Jews of the Second Temple period, followed by practically everyone up through the Renaissance, understood the raqia to denote a solid dome above the earth. The Jewish literature of that era includes discussions, for instance, of whether this dome was made of clay or of copper or of iron (3 Apoc. Bar. 3.7-8).

This was not some bizarre concept unique to the Old Testament. Practically everyone in the ancient Middle East believed that the sky was a solid dome. How that dome got created calls for an explanation, which the Genesis story provides. The Genesis creation narrative is an example of God wisely and graciously accommodating to the “science” of that day (rather than trying to correct it), as an effective means to convey the essential and novel message that Yahweh is the sole, sovereign creator.

Martin Luther clearly understood the meaning of this term, and he was greatly annoyed when the scientists (“philosophers”) of his day were questioning the existence of such a solid dome. Luther took a firm stand on defending the plain, literal meaning of the Bible:

Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters… It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night… We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding.

[ Luther’s Works. Vol. 1. Lectures on Genesis, ed. Janoslaw Pelikan, Concordia Pub. House, St. Louis, Missouri, 1958, pp. 30, 42, 43 ]

A woodcut illustration in the 1534 Luther Bible shows the firmament containing the sun, moon, and stars, with the liquid waters up above the heavens, just like Genesis says. Luther’s stand on the firmament is like of today’s YE creationists regarding a literal Adam and a six 24-hour day creation: “the Bible says it, I believe it, phooey on the scientists, and anyone who doesn’t agree with me is wicked or presumptuous”. ( see https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/was-the-expanse-overhead-in-genesis-1-a-solid-dome/ for more on this controversy over the firmament).

Sorry if this has gotten kind of long-winded. I just wanted to make it clear that the reason that I and millions of other science-literate evangelicals reject automatic Bible literalism is not a “low” view of scripture, but rather a balanced view of how God has provided revelation in both his Word and his works. The devout Christian scholar Francis Bacon commended study of both God’s word and God’s works:

Let no man … think or maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or the book of God’s works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling [pride]; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together. – – The Advancement of Learning (1605)

His warning against unwisely mingling or confounding these two areas has been, unfortunately, neglected by YE creationists.

Now, you may wonder what practicing scientists, who understand the evidence for the age of the earth and for evolution, do with Genesis and related scriptures, if they don’t hold it to a literal interpretation. I can’t speak for anyone else, and I won’t try to spell it all out in this email, but I have sketched out my approach in two articles on my blog. The first one to look at, if you’re interested, is https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/adam-the-fall-and-evolution-christianity-today-and-world-get-it-wrong/ .That gives an overview. Among other things, it answers the question that was asked in your video, what is the purpose of the Genesis creation story if it is not literally true. (It might help to first read the prequel to that article, Evolution and Faith: My Story, Part 1 ).

The second article deals specifically with Adam and the Fall, including Romans 5, etc. : https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/adam-the-fall-and-evolution-christianity-today-and-world-get-it-wrong/ . You might also be interested in A Survey of Biblical Natural Theology and Jesus on Seeing God in Nature: No Signs, No Justice, No Fear . These are not primarily about creationism, but they do note that if there were widely-available physical evidence of the Flood, that would seem to contradict Jesus’s teaching that no sign would be given to the world in general, apart from his resurrection.

I’ll say it again to be clear: In the interest of time, I am being pretty blunt here, but I am just stating my point of view here, not meaning to call into question anyone else’s motives. You two are both wonderful believers, and I trust we can just agree to disagree here.

Blessings,

Scott

About ScottBuchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, folding scooters, and composting toilets. Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 100 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas.
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9 Responses to 2019 Letters to a Creationist, Part 1: Bible Interpretation

  1. jimvogan@juno.com says:

    The way I understand it is that the Bible consists of texts written by men, edited by men, and selected by men. For example the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant versions of the Bible have different numbers of books. Let’s assume that in some of these texts what the men were speaking of was divinely inspired. Does that mean that all primitive misconceptions and folklore were erased from their brains by that inspiration? I guess this must be what biblical-literalists do believe, for instance that after a prophet received any revelation he would forever know that the Earth’s rotation is what produces the illusion that the Sun is moving across the sky, and try to convince his tribe of this (and since none did, it must not be true?). Is this how faith and prayer work today? Does divine inspiration solve many crimes or mysteries of science, or do we have to work to gain true understandings?

    • Jim,
      You raise a number of interesting questions. Just one comment – – The more responsible Christian thinkers have carefully typically distinguished between physical and spiritual realms of revelation and knowledge. Francis Bacon, who defined the modern scientific method, described this “two-books” approach: “There are two books laid before us to study, to prevent our falling into error; first, the volume of the Scriptures, which reveal the will of God; then the volume of the Creatures, which express His power.”
      In The Advancement of Learning (1605) Bacon wrote:
      “Let no man … think or maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or the book of God’s works, divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both; only let men beware that they apply both to charity, and not to swelling; to use, and not to ostentation; and again, that they do not unwisely mingle or confound these learnings together.”

      And so the (mainly Protestant) theologians I am more familiar with taught that it is indeed up to man to use his senses, and his sense, to figure out physical things like how to grow more crops, who committed a crime, and whether the earth moves. Things go south when folks assume that Scripture was intended to teach geology/astronomy/biology and lock in on some particular interpretation of Scripture, and then deny any physical evidence which contradicts their interpretation. This is to “unwisely mingle or confound” the book of God’s word and the book of God’s works, in Bacon’s words.

      For the first 61 years of the twentieth century, nearly all fundamentalists were fine with an old earth. It was the publication of The Genesis Flood in 1961 that caused young earth creationism to explode in popularity and become the default position for so many. See https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/exposing-the-roots-of-young-earth-creationism/ for details.

  2. Small VR error: “the preference to the book” should say “preface”.

    The argument against literalism in general goes back at least as far as Origen within Christianity, but from my schoolboy Rabbinics I suspect that it goes even further within Judaism. Would Jesus himself have been a literalist, given the flexibility of biblical exegesis in his time?

    LIving as I do in Scotland, I particularly like the way in which you show how literalism wrong-footed Calvin over heliocentrism.

    I am saving this link for reference, and look forward to Part 2

    • Paul,
      Thanks for typo correction.
      Re Calvin – yes, that rant against Copernican thinking (this was long before Galileo) I cited was not widely known about until it was kind of rediscovered a few years ago.
      I found it a bit surprising, since otherwise Calvin was kind of realistic about not necessarily interpreting Genesis literally. He taught that God spoke in the language of common people, referring to heavenly phenomena in terms of how they appear to the naked eye, not how scientists (“philosophers”) would understand them. E.g. from his Commentary on Genesis, chapter 1:

      1:8 – “ nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; …it is the book of the unlearned. “
      1:14 “It must be remembered, that Moses does not speak with philosophical acuteness on occult [obscure] mysteries, but relates those things which are everywhere observed, even by the uncultivated, and which are in common use.”

      In this next quote, Calvin is replying to Bible critics of his day – criticizing Moses for describing the moon as one of the two “great lights”, compared to the stars.; whereas astronomy had recently shown that the moon was smaller than e.g. the “star” of Saturn – –
      On Genesis 1:16:
      “Moses does not here subtilely descant, as a philosopher [scientist], on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. …Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.”

      Calvin was fairly serious about incorporating the best scholarship of the day (of course, filtered through his belief grid). So, I suspect that if Calvin were writing a hundred years later, when the evidence for a moving earth was more clear, he might well have been more open to a nonliteral take on the earth fixed on its foundations. Of course, this is just my speculation. Cheers…

  3. Pingback: 2019 Letters to a Creationist, Part 3: Minds Changed? | Letters to Creationists

  4. Pingback: 2019 Letters to a Creationist, Part 2: Young Earth Evidence | Letters to Creationists

  5. Jeff B says:

    You mentioned that this couple created a video. I’m reading through your responses to their video, but I would also like to watch the video itself. The two together would be informative. Can you provide that? If for privacy sake you don’t want to post it, would you be willing to email the video?
    -Jeff B

    • Hi Jeff,
      There is a lot going on right now, so I didn’t check comments yesterday. I’d prefer to err on the side of protecting privacy and anonymity here, since I have published some contents of her private letters to me, so I will decline to identify their videos.

      I tried to quote enough of her letters to give a fair portrayal of her arguments. Neither one of this couple are professional geologists or biologists or theologians, so essentially every one of their points was taken from standard YE creationist literature. If you are curious what the YE creationist positions are on these subjects, you can consult the Answers in Genesis website, e.g. their top ten evidences for a young earth: https://answersingenesis.org/evidence-for-creation/the-10-best-evidences-from-science-that-confirm-a-young-earth/ .
      (I have debunked several of these evidences here: https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2015/01/03/evidences-for-a-young-earth/ – – note the Answers in Genesis photo of folded rock layers in Grand Canyon, with supposedly no fractures, is simply a fraud.)
      Also, see Creation Ministries International, another YE creationist organization. They also have many on-line articles. Here are my reflections on a workshop by a CMI speaker I attended: https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2017/01/24/a-creationist-speaker-comes-to-town/

      You can look on both that site and AiG site for a given topic, e.g. lake varves, and then see what I wrote to “Rachel” on this subject. I have found the best way to arrive at the truth on some controversial subject is to bounce back and forth between proponents and opponents, following the arguments and counter-arguments, and counter-counter-arguments, until pretty much all the facts are out on the table.
      Best wishes to you on your journey here.

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