How Should We Read the Bible?

How should we read the Bible? You might say that a more important question is Should we not read the Bible more? I will not quarrel with you. But in view of recent developments, we must face the question of the proper way to read Scripture.

The developments I refer to are the results of the Human Genome Project, which indicate strongly that the human race, as now constituted, did not descend from one human pair (Adam and Eve), as the early chapters of Genesis portray. Surely, many people will conclude that either Genesis is right or science is right. Articles quoting persons saying as much have appeared in several conservative and evangelical magazines.

I’d like to attempt, as briefly as possible, to offer a response that, I hope, deals responsibly with the matters in dispute that hit closer to home.

Calvin in the Fray

Calvin College has been drawn into the fray. Two Calvin professors wrote articles in the journal Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. While the professors’ research was done under the auspices of the college, there was not a unanimous acceptance of their conclusions. Information concerning the college’s reaction has received media attention, including from National Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal, and The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press.

Are we interested more in the what and the how than the who and the why?

From Sunday school classrooms to theological seminars, Christians often face questions regarding the Genesis story: Where is Eden? Where are the rivers? Where did Cain get his wife? Who are the people seeking to kill Cain? The answers to those questions rarely satisfy the teachers or the students. On the one hand some doggedly insist that Genesis is plain, literal history, while others declare it a myth and, therefore, not historical.

Is there another option? Some observations indicating how our culture affects the way we read the Bible may be helpful:

  • Our culture is obsessed with information, while the Bible writers were more interested in personal relationships.
  • We assume that information is best transmitted in simple and exact language, while the Bible writers were skilled in figurative language.    
  • We assume that plain, literal human language is adequate to describe history and human experience, while the Bible writers seem often to prefer the metaphor and other figures of speech.

Further, if we analyze human interests and human communication, it becomes clear that some people are interested in the what and the how, while others are interested in the who and the why. Is it fair to say that our culture, so influenced by technology, is interested more in the what and the how than the who and the why? (Would that not explain why our culture has made such enormous strides in technology?) Is it fair to say that the Bible writers were more concerned with the who and the why than with the what and the how? If so, then perhaps we “moderns” need to shift gears intellectually and emotionally when we read our Bibles.

The Trouble with Inerrancy

Our tendency to read the Bible in a literal way is borne out in the insistence by some that the Bible is inerrant.

Now, I trust that none of us would maintain that the Bible has errors—especially so when we see the list of noble evangelicals (among them such venerable names as Carl F. H. Henry, James Boice, and J.I. Packer) who in 1978 produced The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. We would wish only to join with them.

It is noteworthy, however, that in Article XIII of the statement, these evangelicals “affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.” The stricture that the word inerrant be limited to theological purposes is helpful and appropriate. In the statement’s next paragraph, the signers “deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to the standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. [They] further deny that inerrancy is negated by biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern mechanical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of materials, variant selection of material in parallel, or the use of free citations.”

That view seems very close to what we in Reformed circles usually call “the organic view of inspiration.”

Having said that, I find it necessary to also point out that our common understanding of the word inerrant may be somewhat misleading when we speak of “scriptural inerrancy.” Have we benefited from the limitations the authors of The Chicago Statement placed on the word?

Synod 1959 of the Christian Reformed Church appointed me, among others, to the Committee on Infallibility. The committee discussed at some length the usefulness of the word inerrant to describe the Bible. We concluded that it is not the most felicitous term to express the unique character of the Scriptures. We agreed that infallible and trustworthy fit the nature of the Bible more appropriately.

What’s wrong with inerrant? Well, it tends to characterize the Bible as an encyclopedia of unassailable facts on which we can build a case in any field of learning. Inerrant also tends to lead to an interminable discussion on the apparent “discrepancies” in Scripture. Finally, the term emphasizes the accuracy or exactitude of the Bible, while the Scriptures themselves emphasize the power of the word—Isaiah 55:10, for example: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return until they have watered the earth . . . so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (NRSV).

Camera vs. Artist’s Brush

During discussions within the Committee on Infallibility, one of the members, the late Louis Praamsma, informed us that theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper maintained that the historiography of the Bible was not that of a camera but more like that of an artist’s brush.

That was an eye-opener for me. It suggested there is more to reality than the camera can capture. The concerns of the Bible are deeper than a camera can see. To put it more simply: human language often fails us in our relationship with God. As I once heard someone say, “What is worth saying cannot be said.”

The function as well as the limitations of human language came forcefully to my attention while I was working on a sermon on the prophet Nathan’s famous visit with David.

Nathan tells a story—most Bible commentators take it to be a parable—about a rich man stealing a lamb from a poor man in order that the rich man may entertain his friends. David, whom the Bible portrays as a king who judged his people with equity, is furious. But Nathan has news for him: David is the rich man!

In a sense, parables (even though they may not have happened literally) are history in an even more profound way than we usually understand history. In Nathan’s story the “lamb” is used instructively, demonstrating how skilled and subtle the ancients could be with metaphor.

At first the “lamb” is Bathsheba, but once slaughtered it becomes something else: the corpse of a loyal, innocent man—Uriah. Consequently it is much, much more than a chunk of mutton and wool. Tragically more historical!

Are the advances in science a fearsome enemy to faith?

Abraham Kuyper’s distinction of the camera vs. the artist’s brush helped me to understand that Nathan’s story teaches us one more thing about the Bible’s historiography: it is pastoral, it is God reaching out to the sinner.

David was not so stupid as to say, “There never was a lamb.” Instead, he pours out his soul to God in inexpressible regret: “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Psalm 51:4). Hardly inerrant words. What about David’s sins against Uriah and others? Nathan’s story and David’s words inform us, as we try to understand the Scriptures, that human language is often inadequate to express what we want to and must say.

Stories like Nathan’s, and parables in general, tell us that parables are more “historical” than we might recognize. As one student put it, “God’s historiography is three-dimensional, or in three tenses: It refers to an event (past tense) according to the reader’s/hearer’s need (present tense) for guidance to appropriate action (future tense).” Nathan’s story surely demonstrates that.

Another student’s high school teacher noted that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Topsy” was more historical than any living African American girl. If Harriet Beecher Stowe could create a literary figure who profoundly affected the course of history (remember the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation) more than any flesh and blood girl, can the Holy Spirit not do that and more? Do we have the right to tell the Spirit how to write the Bible?

Another student pointed out his pastor’s indication of a clear symmetry in the Bible: the first chapters deal with the distant past, and the final chapters deal with the distant future. The pastor felt that both should be recognized as literature of a distinct type (genre, the scholars call it)—that in both the first chapters and the final chapters it’s important to see that history is told in a different, probably more metaphorical, way.

Throughout the Bible we must recognize that metaphor is a better vehicle for conveying the “deep things of God.” In John 3, for example, Jesus puts Nicodemus through his hermeneutical paces. “You must be born again,” Jesus says. What crazy language is that?! We wonder at how Nicodemus fussed. But what a thrill to meet Nicodemus again at the cross. He acts in a most “born again” way. He caught on!

What About Perspicuity?

Some may demur and say, “But did not the Reformers emphasize the perspicuity [clarity] of the Scriptures?”

Yes, they did. But that was in opposition to the Papists who wished to deny people the blessing of reading God’s Word for themselves. It does not mean the Reformers considered interpretation unnecessary.

In reading John Calvin’s commentaries on Scripture, there is one formula we encounter again and again. It goes like this: “Church father X understands the passage to mean . . . but I prefer the meaning that. . . .” (Admittedly, when Calvin takes on the Papists, another more caustic, vituperative formula appears.)

And Scripture itself indicates the need for interpretation: when Philip asks the eunuch whether he understands what he reads, the eunuch replies, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8).

Yes, the plain and simple reading of Scripture is a blessing to all, but that does not mean we have no challenges. The Christian Reformed Church at its inception insisted on an educated clergy. Acts 15 makes clear that when there are interpretation problems, we must deal with them communally under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And that does not mean that professional theologians or the church are infallible.

The “Galileo affair” should also be instructive for us. I think there is a pretty firm consensus among Christian historians that the manner in which the church handled it was not a service to Christianity.

Did the sun move, or did the earth turn? The medieval theologians could settle that with one text, Psalm 96:10— “the earth is established, that it shall not be moved.” Had they done their homework the theologians would have known that the psalmist was not concerned about cosmology per se, but that he was expressing his faith that God would not allow the sea to devour the land (a fear common among the ancients). The Lord would make certain that there would be a place for humans to live.

Trust the Spirit

I wish I could offer a simple and convincing solution to our present challenge. Should we not see it as a means by which God calls us to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that we may communally ponder these issues in faith and humility? Are the advances in science a fearsome enemy to faith? Or may we view them as a God-sent prod for the “theological orchestra” to pause and take note of whether the strings need tuning?

If Kuyper’s distinction between the camera and the artist’s brush is valid, can we view scientists as providing a more photographic account of history, while the Bible gives us the Artist’s account of history?

That would not mean one is valid and the other is not. It would mean that the photographs help tell us more clearly what the Artist is saying.

I was taught that science is the process of human thought in which theories are proposed and then tested to determine their validity. The result is constant review and revision in science. Theology too is a science. Theologians receive data from natural revelation and special revelation. Can theologians ignore the efforts and conclusions of those who work in the natural sciences? Could they learn from those findings, however tentative they may be?

It would seem that the need of the hour is prayer, openness to the Spirit’s leading, and an expectation that in the end our Christian faith will be more vital than ever!

For Discussion

  1. Do you believe that our culture affects the way we read the Bible? In what ways?
  2. Is it possible to bridge the gap between viewing Adam and Eve as useless fictional characters or as historical people? What tools do we need for proper interpretation?
  3. Describe the difference between believing the Bible to be inerrant and infallible.
  4. Vos says that “Abraham Kuyper maintained that the historiography of the Bible was not that of a camera but more like that of an artist’s brush.” How do you understand this?
  5. What about this topic makes you anxious? What gives you hope?
  6. How can we open ourselves to the wisdom and guidance of the Spirit regarding biblical controversies?

About the Author

Rev. Clarence Vos is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church and a professor emeritus of religion and Old Testament at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (29)

Comments

The writer of this article certainly brings out some hard questions that are often un-asked by the casual reader of Scripture. However, he does not say how these same questions can (and are) equally applied, not just to the Creation account, but to the Gospel accounts of Jesus' miracles, resurrection, and ascension. You know, some of those major points of doctrine upon which our salvation is based.

Now Dr. Vos quotes from "The Chicago Statement" on how Scripture is a theological book. But then he seems to make a great leap in logic in separating the account of things in Genesis from theology. But is it possible to separate here history from theology? Or wise? Although Dr. Vos implies that science (e.g. - the Genome Project) practically demands that such a thing occur.

However, when you separate history from theology, you essentially make the Christian faith exactly what atheists and skeptics claim it to be: a series of myths, carried over from pre-modern times, that continue to help us feel secure and give us a cosmic Daddy-figure in an insecure, scary, and large universe. If doctrine and theology are not firmly rooted in actual historical events, then they are myths. Clever myths, to be true. Insightful myths, perhaps. But still myths.

But then I must ask myself, "Has science yet discovered the reality of a resurrection? Of a man coming back to life?" And, truth be told, science has never substantiated not one single resurrection. Not once. And it won't. In fact, you really only read of such resurrections in the Bible. Myths, perhaps? Well, using Dr. Vos' line of reasoning, does it even matter? The important thing is the message God is wishing to communicate, isn't it? Do we actually NEED a literal death and literal resurrection for God to defeat sin? Why, even the learned Jewish scholars of Jesus' day all denied Jesus' resurrection. Perhaps we ought not to be so sure of ourselves after all, that Jesus actually arose from the dead. Again, it's never been substantiated by science. And it never will.

Which leads me to wonder if we've had it all wrong for all of these years. Who needs a literal Adam? A literal Eve? A literal fall into sin? A literal death on a cross? A literal resurrection? Who needs a literal First Adam and a Second Adam? God is a big God, after all, and He can deal with sin however He chooses. Literally or not.

I do hope they are hiring at Fountain Street Church down the way! I believe I've heard a similar message from them for the past few decades now.

This is a very good and helpful article, which clearly explains how employing sound principles of biblical interpretation might lead to understanding Adam and Eve as symbolic representations of humanity as a whole, rather than as a “literal” pair of individuals.

However, much more is required to legitimize the positions of Schneider and Harlow. Their proposed re-reading of Genesis 2-3 does not address the "who" and "why" of how our life on this earth is currently "not how it is supposed to be,” while Genesis 2-3 as understood in our creeds and confessions does clearly address those questions.

Curiously, Schneider and Harlow do not consider the possibility that God selected a particular pair of pre-human, sub-human hominoids to become fully human, as God miraculously and instantaneously infused them with all those spiritual capacities which distinguish true human beings from mere hominoids. Such a scenario would allow Schneider and Harlow to affirm that this original human couple possessed every ability necessary to be and do everything that God calls human beings to be and do; that "the Fall" resulted from their mysterious and culpable decision to disobey God; and that there is no need to substantially revise our creeds and confessions in order to understand them in a way which does not repudiate the current deliverances of science.

However, because this scenario would include a creative act of God which would be completely outside the ability of science to affirm or deny, it would require faith which is the "evidence of things not seen." I have a strong suspicion that this is a large part of the reason that Schneider and Harlow don't consider it.

"How Should We Read the Bible?...especially when science and faith collide"

True science and the Scriptures do not collide. If science should contradict the Scripture. Scientist still do not yet have all the facts.

We have probably all heard the story of the battleship commanding the lighthouse to change course because he thinks it's another ship. When in-fact it is the ship that needs to change course. In the same way the Bible is the lighthouse and science is subservient to Scripture.

Excellent article!

Tyler asks: "Which leads me to wonder if we've had it all wrong for all of these years. Who needs a literal Adam? A literal Eve? A literal fall into sin? A literal death on a cross? A literal resurrection? Who needs a literal First Adam and a Second Adam? God is a big God, after all, and He can deal with sin however He chooses. Literally or not."

Good questions. Who does need it? Certainly not the original writers of Scripture. But our later theological inventions demand such literality, and then we dare demonize those who have the courage to point it out.

God has an awfully big paintbrush. Too bad we're more interested in the kind of brush or the method of painting than the actual artwork.

Thanks for the compelling thoughts, Clarence.

Dr. Vos seems to consider two possibilities for the genre of the early chapters of Genesis: exact scientific description or profound theological parable. However, there may be more possibilities to consider. If a child asks, "Where do babies come from?" you might not give the child the kind of answer that would get you an A on a college biology exam about human reproduction. You might instead speak of the love of a mommy and a daddy; you might give simplified descriptions of body parts and use a metaphor here or there. But even in a simplified description with some metaphors, mommy and daddy are real, not just metaphorical. You would not help a curious child if you replied, "The stork brings babies." When we ask, "Where did the world and people come from," the early chapters of Genesis do not offer detailed scientific descriptions, but neither do they offer a stork-like myth. They offer simplified history. We might consider whether this or that aspect of the story is figurative communication from God, but it seems clear from Genesis, Romans 5, 1 Timothy 2, and elsewhere that Adam and Eve were real people, not metaphors.

Since Dr. Vos quoted from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, it would be good for Banner readers to hear another excerpt from that Statement: "We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood."

To me, the author of this article is trying to psycho analyzes the Bible. Trying to communicate that things aren't what they appear to be. That we need to read between the lines, and not understand the Bible as it has been revealed to us. Since he does not believe in inerrancy, he now has to rely on his own intellect to discern mistakes. Maybe we should ask the question... If God didn't mean what he said, how come he didn't say what he meant?

With this type of teaching I feel we have to commit intellectual suicide. You know... heaven forbid, if you take the Scriptures at face value, and let the text teach you what is truth, and where the obvious metaphors are. But no, instead we have to turn this whole interpretation stuff into a big circus.

We don't have to tell God how He created the universe. He told us, in rather plain and simple language. Observable, science testifies that creation happened how God said it did. Transitional, links are still missing. Humans, animals, and plant life still produce after their own kind. The sun, moon, and planets still govern the years, months, days and seasons. As the earth rotates, we still have perpetual morning and evenings that make up a 24 hour day, and the list goes on; serving as a testimony to the literal truth of Genesis, and God's holy, inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word.

In Scripture we have come to understand that Satan always has an alternative solution to the truth, that is built on a lie. Evolution is his game... and it is as phony as a three dollar bill.

As David Feddes so aptly notes, Dr. Vos fails to address issues raised by the “analogy of scripture” (interpreting scripture with scripture). In addition to the relevant scriptures Feddes mentions, I would add Luke’s genealogy. If Adam is not as "real" a person as King David, where in Luke's genealogy does the transition occur from "mythical" characters to actual persons who lived and died in the past?

Vos also ignores issues raised by our creeds and confessions. Our creeds and confessions not only share the Apostle Paul's “assumption” of the historicity of Adam, but also tell a story that falls apart without it.

The Heidelberg Catechism's story line is as follows: (1) "God created man good and in his own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness, so that he might truly know God his creator, love him with all his heart, and live with him in eternal happiness for his praise and glory" (HC A. 6); (2) "the Fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise -- with the result that our "nature" was "poisoned" (HC A. 7); and (3) the now obvious "natural tendency" to sin by failing to love God in complete, heartfelt obedience (HC A. 4-5).

In stark contrast, the basic story line of the Fall (which Vos is apparently trying to legitimize) is as follows: (1) the natural and inborn inclination of human beings toward self-preservation at the expense of other creatures; (2) the evolution of self-consciousness/God-consciousness, which allowed human beings to know that this mode of living is morally wrong before God; and (3) the culpable failure of human beings to override their innate tendency to self-assertion by the exercise of their free will.

The obvious difference between the two story lines is striking. The first includes a pre-Fall, natural human tendency to act selfishly and sinfully. The second, a created pre-Fall human ability to act lovingly and righteously. No amount of discussion of questions of “symbolic” vs. “literal” interpretation can remove the fact that there are two fundamentally different stories on the table here.

Furthermore, while ancient bones may tell us many things about the distant past, they cannot reveal anything of any consequence regarding spiritual realities such as sin and righteousness. Something is radically amiss when the "deliverances of science" move us to seriously consider reformulating our confessional teachings about these very non-scientific matters.

Years ago, I was studying Hebrew in Israel and an Israeli friend caught me one day comparing my English Bible of Genesis chapter 1 with my Hebrew Bible. She was virtually bilingual but had never looked at an English Bible. She grabbed mine out of my hands, started reading it and then with anger and frustration in her voice she yelled at me as if I was personally responsible for the translation and said, "This is awful."

I understood what she meant. Hebrew is a tribal language. It is a language rich in metaphor. It isn't a grammatically precise language like Greek or Latin. I explained to her that to cover all the subtle meanings of the Hebrew text in any other language, not just English, you'd end up with a rather large commentary rather than a concise translation. When you make a translation, you are committing yourself to one meaning of the text, not all. Despite my explanation she still didn't give me break and restated her opinion of my English Bible reading of Genesis 1 in a very firm voice, "It is awful!"

Thanks for the excellent article. In my view maintaining a self critical spirit is an important part of the reformed theology. This allows our knowledge and theology to continue to evolve as you say. We must continue to go back the Bible, and trust the spirit to open up the beautiful picture painted there of who God is, and how we are to commune with him with our fellow believers. If you look closely you might even see a picture of heaven.

Sir:

With all due respect to your excellent article, your opening statement says it all: The Human Genome project indicates strongly that the human species did not originate from two people, Adam and Eve.

I am a businessman. Many times my salesmen were convinced that they had secured an important piece of business because the customer indicated strongly that he liked their presentation. They came back convinced they had the deal. What was lacking was the signed proposal. Invariably, in those particular instances, they did not come back with that particular piece of paper.

Had your opening statement said "The Human Genome project confirms that the human species did not originate from two people" you would have had my full and complete attention.

Nevertheless, I do compliment you on your thoughtful insights and gracious presentation..

Interestingly my wife and I attended the 45 year reunion at Calvin last weekend. Visiting with old friends (most were Biology or Theology majors) this subject did come up. It caused me to hit the books when I got home.

Sincerely,

Ed Tigchelaar
Carlisle ON

Clarence Vos has raised some excellent points and some misleading direction at the same time. Feddes and others have pointed out some of that. For me, the issue of using metaphors seems to be misunderstood. The prophet Nathan could use the story of the stolen lamb as a parable/metaphor, because king David could see the possibility of it being true, and thus it convicted king David.

If the creation story could not be seen to be true, then it cannot work as a metaphor; it would simply be a fable that is actually a manipulative way of telling us untruths. If the six days were not real, then we would have little understanding as to why God would insist on a sabbath every seven days, rather than every eight or ten. It becomes merely arbitrary. If death and destruction always existed then there was no "fall" into sin. Sin would be as necessary and beneficial as eating or sleeping. If man simply descended (or ascended) from animals, then it is not salvation, but evolution that we need in order to get closer to God. So it does not work as a metaphor unless it has a basis of reality.

The subtitle of "when science collides with faith" is a misnomer, really, since for those who choose to investigate with open eyes, it is really science colliding with reality, with science itself. Science allows for other interpretations of the evidence, and some would say that the evolutionary theory is contrary to science, contrary to the evidence. Logic and reason and fossils and dna mutations and statistical probability are used incorrectly in supporting the theory of macroevolution. These scientific principles actually support simple creation much more. As we learn more and more about nature, macro-evolution becomes less and less likely, less and less possible. While evolutionists have become somewhat tired of making the earth and the universe even older than they claim it is, they would like to do so, because for them, "time" deep time, solves all their problems. (although it does not really solve all the problems with evolution....)

Clarence Vos taught my religion class at Calvin 35 yrs ago. At that time he said the first books of the Bible were just stories because early man was too ignorant to comprehend the truth. He also said that he didn't know if the flood actually occurred because the ark had not been found yet.
It is not a surprise then that Clarence is enamored with the latest scientific flavor of the month. But, belief that mankind is increasingly enlightened is Darwinism.
Intelligence is an inherited trait. Wisdom is not.

Reading Clarence Vos' article I was reminded again of the words of Genesis 3:1, " Did God really say? "

It amazes me that theologians still wrestle with the question whether mankind has arisen from one man and one woman. Likewise, considering at length whether the bible is best characterized as being "inerrant" or as "infallible" will sound to most people as nitpicking, and they will not see the point. Isn't it generally recognized that the Bible is not a science textbook?

I was raised in the Christian Reformed Church, and educated as a biochemist/molecular biologist. I perceive there to be a chasm between faith and the molecular sciences. Having a reductionist atomist worldview leads unavoidably to the exclusion of all religion: simply put, if all just exists out of elementary particles, there can be no God. On the other hand, even particle phycisists or string theorists have little idea what their elaborate mathematical edifices actually mean. One cannot understand the subatomical from our macroscopic perspective. Can anyone suggest some books that tackle the question whether, in an atomist worldview, there is room for God?

With respect to Mr.van Terpen's request for a book confirming there is room for God, I recommend the book of Psalms and all 66 books on either side of the Psalms. Psalm 19 is a good starting point.

As to whether or not the Bible is also a textbook of science, no scientist has as yet provided a better explanation to the origins of this universe, and all therein, than those wonderful words: In the beginning God.....

A second book that addresses many theories( evolution, origins, glacial theory) is THE FLOOD by Rehwinkel. An old(1951) but a very reliable book.

Mr. Van Terpen, I am reading a book now by David A. Noebel, called "The Battle for Truth". The author is a PhD in philosophy and examines four different worldviews, comparing them with each other with regard to ten different disciplines, one of which is biology. The four different worldviews are secular humanism, marxism-leninism, cosmic humanism, and christian worldview. He gets into things like dialectical materialism and naturalism which are the basis for the first three worldviews. So far I am about 1/5 thru the book, and he has not specifically mentioned the atomist worldview, but probably that fits well within the materialism of the humanistic perspectives. You may find this book pertinent to your question. It seems to be well written, bringing much evidence of different worldviews as written by major well-known worldview leaders, and summarizing it into easily understood language and concepts.

Much of the commentary on Clarence Vos' piece appears to be more interested in the whatness and howness than in the whoness and whyness. On the other hand, I have heard little about the nature of human communication and the various uses of language. Those who fixate on the "literal" have major challenges ahead of them, challenges which they largely ignore,since they claim to know exactly what is literal and what is figurative, thanks to hermeneutics.

Ask a literalist whether God really has a face and hands, as the Bible "clearly" states. You suddenly find that the literalist believes in "figurative" uses of language after all, that God doesn't "really" have a face and hands. Hundreds of other examples could be given. But even after they admit that there is much figurative language, e.g. metaphor,in the Bible, they will end the conversation with a statement like "I believe that all of the Bible is literally true, and as such, is inerrant and infallible."

If Biblical metaphors convey truth in powerful ways, why not consider the Adam and Eve of Genesis as powerful metaphors, and understood as such by New Testament authors' references to the Genesis account?

We should probably not be surprised that there is so much apparent self-contradictory and confusing commentary on this subject.

So, Mr. GLD., you want to consider Adam and Eve powerful metaphors. Do you realize that if hands and feet are metaphors for something, it is because hands and feet exist? We know what hands and feet are. And they could be metaphors for holding things, for touching us, for protecting us. Feet could be metaphors for strength and sturdiness, or the ability to go places, to walk or run, or maybe we could be someone else’s feet (to go places for them), etc. But, if Adam and Eve never existed, then what are they metaphors for? If they never existed, then how does the metaphor work? If they never existed, then we are to presume on the basis of what?, that the human race was at one time perfect, created perfectly, but disobeyed God and thus struggled with sin and needed Jesus to bring them back to God? But being created perfectly(in the story) would also then be a metaphor….for what? Human potential to be perfect? What makes our human potential to be perfect a requirement for Christ to come to save us and bring us back to God? I mean why couldn’t we just evolve to perfection, given enough time? And the promise of Christ? Also a metaphor? Well, I guess the seed crushing the serpent’s head contains a bit of a metaphor, but yet it is literally true, also.

And how do you know if Adam’s disobedience was real or not? Did he really sin? Was he really ashamed to meet God? Maybe it is just a metaphor for something…although I can’t guess what for.

There is much figurative language in scripture. Many metaphors, similies, figures of speech, parables. The significance of the figurative language is the truth in it. A metaphor that has no truth…well, that’s a horse of a different color.

This past year I read and re-read the book of Jonah many times. You could say it was my favourite book of the bible for 2011.
From that experience wonder how one can read Jonah as a "literal" story and still fully appreciate the many layers / angles of meaning it holds. It saddens me that some folks may be robbing themselves of some of the riches that God has put before us in his word.

I wonder if the insistence that "fact" = "truth" is an intellectual hangover from the age of enlightenment, rather inconsistent with how the holy books would have been studied even in Jesus time.

Mr. Zylstra, I think you have begun to answer your own questions with the statement: "I guess the seed crushing the serpent's head contains a bit of a metaphor, but yet it is literally true, also." I don't know where this leads us, in terms of how to read the Scriptures, but it at least opens the door to further exploration of the role of metaphors.

If Methusaleh "really" (factually, truthfully?) lived 969 years, as the Bible asserts, is it proper for us to ask what kind of biological processes were at work during his later years? Do we assume that human beings "evolved" over the next few hundred years so that they could no longer reach the level of nine centuries plus? And so it goes.

I could describe in minute detail every aspect of a musical instrument, and argue with others about how it might be improved. I could even play the instrument in my own home and eventually make it sound the way I think it should. Neither is the same as hearing the instrument played, or playing it myself, in a symphony performed by an orchestra.

Tim, I too have often wondered in the past, how the story of Jonah could have happened. The big stumbling block was always the big fish. It says "fish", not whale, so... But recently, I discovered that basking sharks are huge fish, bigger than many whales. And these basking sharks are filter feeders. And the whale shark, which is slightly larger at 40 feet long is also a filter feeder. And who knows, there may have been even a larger fish then that is now extinct. Anyway, while on the one hand, the miracle of Jonah in the belly of the whale is of course still a miracle, it does not seem such an impossible miracle.

But I do not see how reading a story literally means that one must miss all the angles and permutations of the story. For example, the bible makes quite clear that there are many angles to the literal stories of the kings and judges and their relationship to God.

In order to understand a bit more about worldviews that might help you to understand your concern about "fact=truth", you may want to read David Noebel's book, "The Battle for Truth", where he describes the four main worldviews of today's world.

GLD., as I have stated before, there are many figures of speech in scriptures, including metaphors and similies and parables. But maybe you could explain to me how those metaphors would work, if they were not based on some real meanings of the words. For example, the phrase, "cow jumped over the moon" could be a metaphor for absurdity, or possibly the moon was low on the horizon, and it appeared to jump over the moon. But in both cases, we know what "cow", "jump" and "moon" are, what they mean.

The story of Adam and Eve will only really work as a metaphor if they are real. The story is that the human race (Adam and Eve) lived in the garden (another metaphor? - for what?) communicated with God, then listened to Satan, disobeyed God, fell into sin, and were removed from the garden. We assume the serpent was real, and yet at the same time was a metaphor for Satan, who snuck into the garden, and was later forced to crawl around, rather than fly as an angel. Crushing his head is a metaphor for total defeat.

But, if Adam and Eve were not real, and only a symbol of the human race, then the question remains: how were they able to communicate with God? How many of them were there when they began to disobey God? How many generations had there been? What was the impact of disobedience on their lives? What was the impact of their disobedience on the creation itself? And of course, the simple question, why would it be so difficult to mention these other members of the human race in scripture? What would prevent anyone from understanding that?

A metaphor should always make the story more clear, not less clear.

The main argument is that these chapters are not written in the genre of an allegorical metaphor.

Methuselah, how did you manage to live so long? Did humans devolve, or become less healthy or able, or did disease and genetic mutations reduce the lifespans? I guess it would be a guess. But it is interesting how the flood itself seemed to be a turning point, and at that time God indicated that the lifespan of men would max out at approximately 120 years. It took a few generations, but the rapid decline of lifespan was obvious, comparing Noah to his descendants.

Sure it is interesting to ask what happened to lifespans, even if we are guessing a bit. The bible says Moses' eyes were not dim at 120 years old. Yet that rarely happens today. If we did not get cancer, and our teeth didn't rot, and our lungs didn't ever get filled with dust and bacteria, and our resistance to disease was overwhelming, who knows...

Given that Adam and Eve could have lived in their physical condition forever, had they not disobeyed God, then living only 900 years was a pretty short span. But the flood shortened that even more. I have a feeling it is related to radioactivity and mutations causing a decline in health and longetivity. We know that fossils of dinosaurs, insects and reeds, show that some of them were much larger at one time than any reptiles, dragonflies and reeds we can observe today, so lifespans may have been only one of the things that changed.

In answer to the question 1 above, Culture may affect the way we read the bible. But it also affects the way we do science. In particular, it affects the way we do psychology and sociology, leading to ideas about behaviourism, or to pantheistic influences, or to including karma, or influence of re-incarnation. Culture also affects the way physical and biological science is done. An atheistic or agnostic culture determines that science is outside of God's control(if god exists), and is not done in response to God's edicts; the culture says that God does not belong in science.

As to question 6, the wisdom and guidance of the Spirit helps us to deal with biblical controversies such as infant baptism vs adult baptism, or grace vs works, or children at the Lord's supper, or "is God a special God of the poor and destitute". But we don't consider that the spirit might also help us with scientific controversies, or we assume that science does not have any controversies, that it is merely objective, and therefore conclusive. Evolution is not really a biblical controversy, because scripture does not mention nor hint at evolution. Evolutionary theory is a scientific controversy, which is influenced by philosophies, world views, and different theologies.

It's interesting how the article and the discussion questions target our understanding of the Bible but the recent development: the results of the Human Genome project are not questioned.
Are the scientists working on the project immune to cultural influence? Do they not have a worldview? Is the language of genetics so completely understood that no one could ever make a mistake?
When scientists (who are studying the data of the project) find that it indicates strongly that the human race DID descend from one human pair, will it send Evolutionists into a tailspin trying to defend what they've always believed and make some changes to their belief so that it all still works?
Oh wait, they already do that.

The widely-read magazine, Newsweek, featured an article on pages 46-52, of it's January 11, 1998 issue titled: "The search for Adam and Eve", by authors John Tierney, Lynda Wright & Karen Springen. The news item stated: "Trained in molecular biology, they [scientists] looked at an international assortment of genes and picked up a trail of DNA that led to a single woman from whom we are all descended."

"And Adam called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living." Genesis 3:20

Maternal mitochondria DNA is passed relatively unchanged in the female line only. Over time, mutations occur in the DNA of humans. How many mutations have occurred since Eve? How fast do mutations occur? In other words, what is the rate at which the mitochondrial DNA clock runs. If the number of mutations since Eve were known, and if the mutation rate were also known, then one could calculate how long ago mitochondrial Eve lived.

Science, volume 279, number 5347 , 2nd January 1998, featured Ann Gibson's article: "Calibrating the Mitochondrial Clock". "Mitochondrial DNA appears to mutate faster than expected, prompting new DNA forensics procedures..." "For example, researchers have calculated that mitochondrial Eve - the woman whose mtDNA was ancestral to that in all living people - lived ... using the new clock she would have lived a mere 6000 years ago."

"Every word of God is flawless;" Proverbs 30.6a

Note that the Newsweek article referred to, should have been January 11, 1988.

Note that the Newsweek article referred to, should have been January 11, 1988.

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