Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Questions, Allegory, History and Genesis

I just read a provocative blog by Ron Offringa about the types of questions we should and shouldn't be asking. I think he makes a good point about secondary questions about the Biblical text displacing the more important, primary concerns. We certainly expend too much energy doing this when the most important things about the text are plain enough to all, and what we should generally be focused on as far as the text's significance and applicability to how we should live and what we should believe.

However, in his response to questions about Genesis he has done the very thing he is cautioning against when he asserts, fairly dogmatically, the way in which the Genesis accounts must be read, or at least can't be read. Yes, the Genesis creation account can be read as allegorical, or at least not as containing literal history or scientific truths, as many of the early church fathers read them. And certainly the authors of Genesis and other ancient Scriptures weren't consciously transmitting modern-scientific truths in their writings. But that doesn't mean the text could not contain truths that would only make sense in the light of modern science (unbeknownst to the author), though of course that still isn't the primary intention of the text. Which, as it happens, is what I hold to be the case. That is; that the events can be read as literal history, though not necessarily as literal 24-hour days.

The creation accounts, almost inexplicably, make near perfect sense in the light of modern science once certain things are accounted for (Hebrew 'day' can mean 'era'/'age', the perspective shift in Gen 1:2, etc.). This doesn't displace an allegorical reading as illegitimate, or alter the main point of the story at all, only reveals the perfection, infallibility and dynamism of God's word.

When the authors of biblical texts were writing, they didn't know how their writings would fit within the Biblical canon. And yet the texts take on greater, richer meanings within the canon, despite the fact that the authors had no clue this would happen and it was not part of their intention when writing. The texts enliven each other, give context to one another, and tell a fully formed narrative in a way that each author working separately, in his individual historical context, and solely in the light of their own conscious intentions never could accomplish. Only the Holy Spirit working through them, and within history, could accomplish this, which is why limiting the truths the Bible is allowed to reveal to those truths that reside in the conscious intentions of the authors working in their specific historical context is too restricting of a hermeneutic. Similarly the text can contain other types of truths -- such as scientific ones -- that have nothing to do with the author's conscious thoughts, historical context or intentions.

Modern science determined -- contrary to most educated belief throughout history -- that the universe has a definite beginning at a finite time in the past. The Bible is the only Holy book to make this very claim in multiple places, and big-bang cosmology has confirmed this is true. This is just one example, but they are numerous.

It is certainly very important to understand context and the author's intention and cultural differences when reading the texts. It's also important to realize that it is not only through the author's conscious thoughts that the Holy Spirit speaks through the text.

In any case, just because I hold this view I don't think that other views are completely untenable. For example, someone may hold that the Genesis text is meant to be taken allegorically and can not be reconciled as literal history in any sense. This, as Ron rightly pointed out, is a disagreement, but not one that should be elevated to a level of greater importance than those truths which are beyond dispute: God created the universe and saw that it was good, God created the universe for the main purpose of being the domain of man and giving him the gift of existence as an act of infinite grace, God made man in His likeness, man is now fallen and sinful which separates us from God etc.

While we should avoid unnecessarily rigid dogma on matters of relatively small importance, we also need to be wary of slipping into counter-dogmas of our own on those very same secondary matters.


  1. You make it sound as if you're disagreeing with me at first, but by the end I don't have that feeling. Regardless, I enjoyed reading the post and I'm glad you enjoyed mine.

    I'm cautious to assert that Genesis has anything to do with the Big Bang or anything else. In fact, part of what spurred my writing about this was that video you posted not too long ago about science and the Bible coming together. I think they can, but I don't think its necessary for us to try and push that agenda on the Bible.

    If we see correlation, that's great, but I think it's just as important that we remember that the Bible isn't a science book. As Christians we can see truth from multiple sources and praise God for it, but I don't think its a worth while argument to try and find science in the Bible. It's there sometimes, but I don't think it's the story that the Bible is telling. I don't think the author of Genesis, or the Holy Spirit for that matter, was trying to address the origins of the universe outside of the fact that they are God. Big Bang or otherwise, Genesis is telling us that creation came from God and that God made it good.

    All of that is to say, I'm happy to find that we agree.

  2. Overall I definitely don't disagree with the main thrust of your post. Only ~1 of your ~15 paragraphs I took some issue with, and it was admittedly on a matter of secondary importance -- though one which in turn leads to slightly more important concerns, such as how we should read Scripture.

    I agree that the main point of Genesis -- both the central point of the author and the Holy Spirit working through him -- is not about the technical, scientific specifics but about the gift of Creation and its significance to humans. I just believe the word of God is dynamic enough to contain additional truths beyond what the author intended, including scientific truths.

    This is not to say that the text itself is scientific, only that as a divine revelation of truth it can't contradict the observance of God's creation (aka science), which is another revelation of God's truth. You can avoid contradiction by noting that certain texts are allegorical. You can also avoid it by noting that the texts simply are not contradicted by any scientific knowledge -- which isn't the same as claiming the texts themselves are scientific documents. A poem can be completely free of scientific error, but this doesn't make it a scientific poem.