If we’re going to have a meaningful discussion about the Old Testament we must first go over how to understand it. For instance, superficially reading it as a flat woodenly literal textbook will give us a wrong view of what is being said. It’s not the words of the Bible that are at issue; it’s the interpretation of those words that pose the challenge for us.
Our particular interpretative method (hermeneutic) will determine how compatible the Old Testament appears to be with science.
For example, there are three ways we can interpret the Genesis creation story, ranging in various degrees in compatibility with modern science. On the somewhat incompatible side, you would have someone like Ken Ham with Answers in Genesis. He’s a Young Earth Creationist. At the moderate level, there is Dr. Hugh Ross with Reasons to Believe. He’s an Old Earth Creationist. Both Ham and Ross represent traditional views on evolution. The most compatible view with science is probably that of Dr. Francis Collins, founder of The Biologos Foundation, who advocates both the old earth creationism and theistic evolution.
I bring this up because all three represent positions held by Christians who take a literal view of the Bible very seriously (for a better understanding of what “literal” actually means, watch this clip).
In the interest of full disclosure, my particular (non-dogmatic) view hovers somewhere between that of Dr. Ross and Dr. Collins. I prefer Dr. Ross’s particular “day-age” explanation of creation from an astrophysicist’s viewpoint; I prefer Biologos’s philosophical and theological position because it represents a more fully-orbed view from Bible scholars, physicists, and biologists.
With that out of the way, it would be good to start with this clip from Biologos about how we are to understand the Old Testament text. Please watch this before continuing on with the rest of the post.
Putting the right interpretative glasses on
The Old Testament must be anthropologically understood, as the ancient culture understood it, not through our 21st century culture and scientific standards. This is critically important, as Dr. John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College said:
“We’re well aware that people have to translate the language for us; we forget that people have to translate the culture for us. And therefore if we want to get the best benefit from the communication, we need to try to enter their world, hear it as the audience would’ve heard it, as the author would’ve meant it, and to read it in those terms.” (emphasis added)
If we don’t get this, we may end up actually missing actually being communicated to us. As physicist and theologian, Dr. John Polkinghorne said about the ancient paradigm:
“The stories of the ancient world were not concerned with minute literal [scientific] accuracy as we are today. People wrote, not to give you a sort of factual journalistic account of what’s going on, but to tell you the significance to what was happening.”
Again, Dr. John Walton:
“The Bible wasn’t written to us. It wasn’t written in our language; it wasn’t written with our culture in mind or our culture in view….people come to Scripture thinking they need to integrate it with science, and so they want to either read science out of the Bible or they want to read science into the Bible. That’s not the way to do it because inevitably you end up making the text says things it never meant to the ancient audience.”
Understanding creation myths
I should mention here what is meant by creation stories or creation myths. A “myth” doesn’t necessarily mean that the story is total fiction. As N.T. Wright put it, “When anthropologists talk about myth, what they mean is not an untrue story. What they mean is a story that is full of power in how we understand ourselves…” (see the full comment here).
As Dr. Nancy Murphy, professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary said in the video clip:
“We can understand what our own creation stories are saying better if we know what the creation myths were, that were known at the time those stories were written. For instance, to realize that a lot of the Genesis stories were written as a counter-measure against the other culture’s creation stories. That throws an immense amount of light on what parts of the story we’re supposed to be paying attention to.” (Emphasis added)
Old Testament scholar, Peter Enns said this:
“Genesis shares a theological vocabulary with the other stories, it just sort of turns it on its head….it’s a potent and counter-intuitive theological statement in the ancient world where people say, ‘that’s totally different from anything we’ve ever seen.'” (Emphasis added)
These creation stories were meant to confront the pagan creation myths that these people were deeply embedded in. Otherwise, as N.T. Wright said, it’s like seeing the notes of a Beethoven Symphony but not understanding what the work is actually about…“It doesn’t actually catch what’s going on.” In other words, to simply read it as textbook, analyzing the data like we do today, is to miss the proverbial forest for the trees.
I will finish with another quote from N.T. Wright:
“This world was made to be God’s abode, God’s home, God’s dwelling. He shared it with us and now He wants to rescue and redeem it. So we have to read Genesis for all it’s worth. And to say, either history or myth, is a way of saying, ‘I’m not going to study this text for what it’s worth. I’m just going to flatten it out so that it conforms to the cultural questions that my culture today is telling me to ask.’ And I think that’s a form of actually being unfaithful to the text itself.”
Next time we’ll look at the historical and dating issues with the Old Testament.