Is The Bible Literally True?

Should we take the Bible literally? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Someone sent me an article from the Huffington Post recently on if the Bible is literally true. The article is by a Steve McSwain who is described as a speaker, author, counselor to congregations, Ambassador to the Councilor on the Parliament for World’s Religions, and Spiritual Teacher. No academic credentials are listed. He does also describe Christianity as his faith so he claims at some level to be a Christian.

He does say at the start that while he values the Bible, he doesn’t believe it to be divinely dictated or a sacred text without error. I don’t know any evangelical today who really holds to the dictation theory. No doubt, there are some in the rank and file who do, but not the majority.

He goes on to say that if you are a Biblical literalist, that this bothers you. You believe that everything must be literal and it must be error-free. At this, I have a problem. What is meant by literal? It’s a term that’s often used and yet few people really define it. Most people do not think Jesus is literally a door or a vine when He uses that language.

Sadly, McSwain is probably accurate when some people think that if they risk undermining the text or questioning it, they could undermine all of it. Everything goes out the window then. This is the all-or-nothing thinking that many Christians do have and amusingly, many skeptics have that as well. I recall one person on Unbelievable? asking a guest on the show that if the Bible doesn’t agree with how Judas died, then how can we trust that Jesus was crucified?

McSwain goes to the flood accounts and says that they obviously contradict. He points to the differences between verses 2 and 15 of chapter 7. Let’s go and look at what they say.

Verse 2: Take with you seven pairs of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and one pair of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate

Verse 15: Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark.

Look. I know that there are possible claims of contradictions and such, but this is not a good one. All that is said in verse 15 is pairs came. It doesn’t specify how many and how many of each kind came. In that case, give the benefit of the doubt to the author instead.

He goes on to say that,

The real Moses never wielded a staff with supernatural powers, the tip of which, when dipped into the Nile, turned the river into a cesspool of blood. Or, when dipped into the Red Sea, caused it to part so Israelites could pass to the other side on dry, not muddy, ground.

None of these Biblical stories, including the ones where Jesus is depicted as defying the laws of nature and performing miracles… as in, walking on water or giving sight to the blind or, most amazingly, raising dead people back to life were recorded as factual, or literal, eyewitness accounts. And, even if they were, they cannot be depicted as such today, if you want any of it to be believed… to be respected… or, to be read with any seriousness.

For the sake of argument, this could be true, but the problem is McSwain gives us no reason to believe any of this. I also have to wonder what kind of Christian he is if he denies any miracles at all. Again, McSwain’s case could hypothetically be right, but he has given us no reason to think so, that is, unless you just come out and agree that miracles don’t happen, but that is the very thing under question.

As for the idea of eyewitness accounts, it would be nice to see some interaction with scholarship, such as Richard Bauckham, but we can suspect that won’t happen. Statements of faith are problematic no matter who says it. Unfortunately, mayn people will read McSwain and believe it because, well he’s in the Huffington Post, and do so without any real reason why they should believe it.

What matters to McSwain is how the stories have shaped the lives of those who hear its message. This can sound good, but while it’s great that people have their lives changed, do we want to enforce the Noble Lie? If Christianity is not true, then there is truly no resurrection, no heaven beyond this world, no hell to shun, no forgiveness of sins, no real love of God.

It’s hard to believe that the early church was really excited about that.

McSwain has a watered down faith. Note I have not said he has to embrace inerrancy, but he seems to have just embraced that Christianity is all about being a good person and the truth of the Bible does not matter. If anything, the truth of the Bible matters abundantly. If it is true that God lived among us and that Jesus died and rose again and there is real forgiveness and a heaven to gain and a hell to avoid and eternal life in resurrected bodies, I should think we would want to know it. If it is not true, then who really cares? But if it is true, it matters greatly. As has been said, if Christianity is not true, it is of no importance. If it is true, it is of the utmost importance.

What is Hermeneutics?

What on Earth is hermeneutics? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Hermeneutics is a big word to a lot of people. If you have grown up in the church. chances are sadly that you’ve never heard it. Sadly, many of today’s popular preachers don’t have a clue about it, such as in how we like to share this joke meme concerning someone like Joel Osteen.

HermanNewtics

The word is a strange one still and we need to know what it is. The Collins English dictionary lists it as the art of interpretation, but especially of Scripture. As to the word origin, it has the following:

from Greek hermēneutikos expert in interpretation, from hermēneuein to interpret, from hermēneus interpreter, of uncertain origin

In Greek mythology, Hermes was known as the messenger of the gods. They had a message and he would take it to the recipient. In other words, he would be an interpreter.

Today, when we read any document, we are engaging in hermeneutics. In fact, this isn’t just reading. If you hear a message or if you even see body language taking place, you are trying to interpret it. Many a woman has been stymied by the way that a man does not catch on when she is flirting with him. My own wife has told me about two times specifically she was trying to flirt with me while married and I did not catch on. (Excuse me while I go and mourn thinking about those two times.)

Some of you have a mindset that when we approach the Scripture, we should do it literally. Properly understood, this is true. Improperly understood, this is a disaster. Properly understood, a literal interpretation means an interpretation done according to the intent of the author. Improperly done, it means that you just read everything as if it was straight forward without anything like metaphors, similes, figures of speech, hyperbole, etc. In fact, we often use the word literally when we don’t mean literally. For instance….

How do you get to the intent of the author? Is there some magic formula? Well, no. This can often be a problem in dialogue because it’s thought by some that there’s some magic technique you can use to automatically tell. There’s no more some magic technique for Scripture than there is for Shakespeare and there’s no piety in taking everything in Scripture as if it was written to 21st century Americans.

So over the next few times as we continue our look at basic apologetics, I’d like to give some rules of hermeneutics that I try to follow. These will largely focus on Scripture, though you can use them for various other texts that you come across throughout the day. (This also includes messages that are not written.) Hopefully in the end, you’ll also be paying attention to the words that others use much more and you’ll be paying much more attention to the way that you use your own words. Your own words can dig you into a hole very easily if you’re not careful with them.

Hope to see you as we continue this journey!

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Genesis, Science, and the Beginning

What do I think of Ben Smith’s book on Genesis and science? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I reviewed this book and Jay Hall’s book since I’m hosting a debate between both of them on my show. More can be said from my perspective on Smith’s book since it deals more with the interpretation of Scripture, which is something that I do know about. There are places where Smith does touch on scientific issues, many of which I don’t know much about, but one that is interesting to me is the eruption of supernovas as indication of an old universe. I will not be interacting with science in this review since that is not my area. Smith is also not a theistic evolutionist and he has a separate book for evolution and thus, that will not be covered.

Smith starts with talking about the dispute we have going on today and the many views that are out there on the first part of Genesis which he numbers to be ten, including his own. The book is up-to-date since it includes John Walton’s view, which has also been the view that I hold to and while I’m not sold on Smith’s view yet, he has intrigued me with it. In fact, in some ways, it looks like many facets of Walton’s view could be included in Smith’s view and I do not doubt that Smith would think that many of Walton’s insights are valuable, especially since Walton is often quoted favorably.

Smith holds to a view known as the Prophetic Days View. A similarity this view has with Walton’s is that the days are indeed 24-hour days. The difference is that in this week, God declared what it was that He was going to be doing without necessarily completing it on that day. I find this view intriguing and it could do a good job explaining some of the data, but I do wonder if this is still how the ancients would have seen this. Walton in his work was able to point to corresponding writings that indicated likewise in the ancient world. Smith’s view would be more convincing for me if he could do likewise.

Smith also does write about how he used to be YEC and points out the reason he was one for so long was that he never read anything that disagreed with him, until he picked up a Hugh Ross book and then found out this guy wasn’t the person that he was made out to be and ten years of reading YEC material had not prepared him for that. It was a hard change, but he eventually made the change. Smith rightly points out that this is a problem that we have in our day and age that few people will bother to read anything that really disagrees with them. It’s easy to be convinced your viewpoint is the right viewpoint when you stay in an echochamber of your own thoughts. Reading disagreeing material is one of the best ways you can grow.

I also agree with Smith that there are some on the other side who do accuse OECs of believing in a different god and a different gospel. This kind of language absolutely must stop. YECs should think that those of us who are OECs are missing the truth if they are convinced of YEC, but to say that we are outside the fold is something altogether differently. Fortunately, most do not do this, but the ones that do this tend to speak very loudly.

Smith also does have a section on the question of death before the fall. This is an excellent part of the book where he states that many of our beliefs on animals could arise more from sentiment than they do from the Bible. This is something that our culture must watch for, especially when we live in an age of Disney and we can turn animals into creatures that feel and think like we do and increase our sympathies towards them. Of course, many of us who have this concern don’t really hesitate to go and visit the McDonald’s and get a hamburger so perhaps it is not God that is inconsistent, but we that are.

Also, there are two appendices dealing with meanings of Hebrew words and a look at what is meant by the firmament. Both of those will be helpful.

I can’t say I’m sold on the concordist view yet. There are times that such a viewpoint has got us in trouble in the past because we read a text thinking it was talking about science when really it wasn’t. This is a danger I’m very concerned about so I’m hesitant at this point.

Overall, this is a fascinating book and the viewpoint is intriguing. Anyone who is skeptical of the Genesis account needs to give it a look.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

What is Hermeneutics?

Is hermeneutics a way to avoid accepting what the text says? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

There is often a rabid fundamentalism that takes place in America and other Western societies. Because we are so individualistic, we think everything is about us and so when it comes to a text, such as the text of Scripture, well that is about us. Since this is also God’s Word to us supposedly, God would obviously write it in a way that is easy for us to understand. I mean, if we were God, we would do that. Right? Surely we wouldn’t deliver a message that is essential for our eternal salvation and then have it be hard to understand? No. The text must be understood easily and we absolutely then must read it literally. By literally, I do not mean according to the intent of the author, but in a more wooden sense of “The text says what it means and it means what it says.”

The ironic thing is there are Christians and atheists who both agree on this and they are both fundamentalists. The fundamentalist Christian believes everything in the Bible is absolutely true and usually does so on just “faith.” If it says six days, it means six days and keep that science stuff away from me. We’re going to go with what the Word of God says. The atheist meanwhile looks at the text and says “If the text says slavery, it means slavery. I don’t need to hear anything about historical context.” The atheist will tend to disbelieve everything in the Bible. Both approach the text with the same mindset in many ways.

And both of them resist any notion of hermeneutics.

So what is hermeneutics?

In ancient Greece, the gods were way up there and we humans were down here below. Who would be the go-between? Quite often, Hermes was the messenger of the gods. His name is behind the word. Hermes was the one who interpreted the message of the gods for us. The word Hermeneutics comes from that and it means the art of interpretation. Some of you might be tempted to say that that applies only to the Bible. It doesn’t. It applies everywhere. You’re using hermeneutics right now to interpret what I say. You use it to interpret body language or oral communication as well. Let’s go with the example of a newspaper.

When you open the newspaper, you expect most stories you read in there will be at least attempts to write out truthful accounts. Yet even in these accounts, you could expect to read some metaphorical language. For instance, if you go to the Sports team and you read about a game that was played where one team massacred another, you don’t expect that you’ll find that on a page talking about crime. You know it’s metaphorical language. If you turn over to the comics, you’ll suddenly find you’re reading the language differently. If you go to the advice column, you find still something different. If you go to the letters to the editor, you will find different language and perhaps even opinions that disagree with the perspective of the newspaper as a whole.

All of this is hermeneutics.

Keep in mind in all of this, I am assuming the text has a meaning. The words on the page really mean something and some interpretations are right and some are wrong. It’s important to realize also that just because you think a text means something, that does not mean that what it says is true. You could be a Muslim for instance, and interpret the NT to teach that Jesus died by crucifixion. You’d agree that the text is teaching this, but you would just say the text is wrong. You could be a pluralist and say that the text teaches that Jesus is the only way to salvation. You’d disagree with this, but you’d say the text teaches this. You could be an atheist and say the text teaches Jesus did actual miracles. You’d disagree, but this would be what the text is saying.

When saying that the Bible needs to be interpreted, this is because it is from a different time, culture, place, and language. In fact, if you want to go with what the text says, unless you read the original languages, you’re not reading what the text says. You’re already reading an interpretation. Even in the same language, there can be difficulties. Many of us could not read Shakespeare as he wrote it. For an illustration of this, just consider the KJV. It was just fine for the time it was written in, but many words have changed meaning since then and there are figures of speech that we no longer use. It is for this reason that translations have to keep being updated. Languages do not stay static like that.

Now is this an exact science? Can you reach a point where you say it is absolutely definitive that this is what the text means? No, but if we follow those standards then science itself is not an exact science. Any interpretation of the scientific data could be overturned. It is not written in stone. The more we study it, the more likely it looks that a certain viewpoint is correct. For instance, the huge majority of biologists today agree evolution best explains our origins. That means that if this is overturned, there must be some powerful evidence otherwise that evolution did not occur. That does not mean that such is impossible theoretically.

In the same way, there are many interpretations we can be quite sure of. There are also many Biblical passages that will leave us scratching our heads and wondering what the heck is going on in them. It would be a mistake to hang your Christianity on every single issue in the Bible and on every one of your interpretations being correct. It requires work. If you want to say your interpretation is correct, you need to give a reason why you think so and then leave it to others to respond. Unfortunately, with the fundamentalist mindset, we’ve grown lazy and prefer that the text should do all the work for us.

But in interpretation, there is no excuse for laziness.

Hermeneutics is not a dirty word. We all do it everyday without realizing it. The question is not are you going to interpret the text. You will. The question is if you are going to do a good job or not.

And if you take the fundamentalist attitude, you’re already saying you’re not going to do a good job.

And if you’re not willing to study a text, don’t bother debating it. There’s no reason to take anyone seriously who has not studied the issue.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Language for God in Patristic Tradition

What do I think about Mark Sheridan’s book published by IVP? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

How do you interpret a text of Scripture? The ways it’s done throughout history have changed and this book by Mark Sheridan is a fascinating look at the earliest interpreters. Today, we often have an idea that we have to get at the “literal” meaning of the text, but a look at the church fathers shows they were quite different. In fact, it looks like many times the last thing they wanted to do was to take the text “literally.” The first point was to take the text in a manner that was fitting to God. This would mean that you had to avoid things that would seem like emotional outbursts on the part of the deity. If the text said God was angry, you had to interpret that differently because the deity does not get angry. While I agree with that point, it is irrelevant to the thesis of the book as well. You can say that fathers were wrong in that belief, but the reality is that is still how they interpreted the text.

It wasn’t just them. They got this also from Philo who before Christianity followed the same kind of path with looking at the work we call the Old Testament today, even to the point of thinking philosophers like Plato had read Moses. Philo wanted to make sure the text was also being read in a way that was fitting to God and this would often mean a strong allegorical interpretation. The church fathers followed in suit with the allegory and sometimes, it looks quite amazing. We can look at what the church fathers said in their day and wonder how it could be that someone would come to that interpretation.

For instance, consider Psalm 137 where we are told about Babylon that happy is he who takes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. It’s not just moderns today who have a hard time interpreting the passage. The ancients did too. Their viewpoint was that the children of Babylon are the sins that we struggle with. The rock that the babies then were dashed against was Christ. The message the Psalmist was giving then was that we should take our sins and dash them against the rock of Christ so that they could be destroyed. Most of us today look at that and say “Huh?”, but in the time of the Fathers, this would have been seen as a valid interpretation.

Other passages were also troubling to them. What about what Abraham did with Hagar? What are we to do with that? What about the imprecatory Psalms? What are we to do with those? What about the conquest of Canaan? How do we handle that? The ancients struggled with this just like we do. Sheridan takes us through many of the church fathers to see how they interpreted these passages. In the end then, he takes us up to our modern era to show how we handle them today. Do we necessarily have a clear interpretation? Maybe not, but it is important to see how this has gone on throughout history and to realize that our hang-up on literalism is really a more modern one than anything else.

I do encourage those interested in the history of interpretation to read Sheridan’s book. You’ll quite likely disagree with your Christian ancestors, but it will be well worth the read.

In Christ,
Nick Peters